A DEMOCRATIC country suffers an immense double blow -- loss of the person, cancellation of the people's mandate -- when its elected leader is removed by violence. So it is with the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, four-time leader of the world's largest democracy and a commanding figure on the international scene.

The event, reminding us of all too many others, is horrible. The circumstances are an ironic tribute to the woman: she was gunned down by Sikhs she had kept in her security detail after last June's Sikh uprising as a sign that she wanted to get on with India's unending business of binding its disparate ethnic groups into one nation.

The daughter of post-independence India's first prime minister, Mrs. Gandhi was installed in the leadership in 1966 by Congress Party stalwarts who figured she would be easy to control. What a misjudgment. "Mrs. G" became master of the intricate balancing and patronage system of Indian politics. She also became hungry for power to the point that in 1975, after a court ordered her to resign (for illegal campaign practices), she invoked emergency powers and jailed thousands of rivals. But to the salvation of Indian democracy, she permitted a return to free elections and was bounced out of office -- though only for a few years. Prime Minister Gandhi came to soften the brand of oppressive bureaucratic socialism she inherited from her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. Partly as a result, she saw India make impressive inroads on its backwardness, with the Green Revolution in agriculture and the consolidation of an urban industrial base. But further progress remains critical to alleviating misery and inequity and easing ethnic strains of the sort that produced her murder.

Mrs. Gandhi believed deeply in a strong India recognized as dominant in its region and as influential in the world. She used India's military power against Pakistan as the occasion arose, and augmented that power exponentially with the test of a nuclear bomb in 1974 -- an unwise decision that helped propel the Pakistanis into a countereffort. She put a pro-Soviet tinge on India's "nonalignment," too, accepting the Kremlin's invasion of Afghanistan as defensive. Still, her attachment to India's fellow democracy, the United States, was plain.

Within hours of Mrs. Gandhi's death, her son and intended political heir, Rajiv, 40, was named prime minister. Accepting the needs of this traumatic moment, he called for balance and calm. To ensure longer-term stability, however, it will be essential for India to hold to its planned elections next year.