Indira Gandhi, the 66-year-old assassinated leader of the world's largest democracy, played a larger-than-life role on the world stage as prime minister of India for 15 of its 37 years of independence and as the best known spokesman for the less developed nations of the Third World.

She was a commanding presence at the United Nations, where she was one of the most visible of the national leaders who attended General Assembly sessions. At forums around the world she carried the torch for increased aid for have-not nations and an end to the superpowers' nuclear arms race.

Mrs. Gandhi used her image in the world to project her country as a regional power and a force to be reckoned with in South Asia.

But she badly tarnished her position as a democratically elected leader and raised serious questions on the future of democracy in India when she adopted authoritarian emergency powers in 1975 and threw hundreds of thousands of her political opponents in jail.

Throughout her 15 years in power, she tried to steer her strategically located nation on a middle course between the United States and the Soviet Union, although with India's strong dependence on Soviet arms she appeared to be tilting more toward Moscow.

"I am neither pro-Soviet nor pro-American, but pro-Indian," she constantly told interviewers. She felt that her policies were in the best interest of an emerging India, the first of the world's major colonies to gain independence after World War II, although many critics believed her country would have benefited more if she has chosen a more prowestern path.

All that was of little importance to most of India's 717 million people, many of whom live in abject poverty in isolated villages with neither roads nor running water. To them Mrs. Gandhi was "Mother India" or "the Empress of India" -- a godlike figure who was nurtured on its struggle for independence and, after a brief interlude, took over as prime minister after the death of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. She was clearly the strongest national political figure in the vast country, and until recently she was seen as the glue that held together India's varied ethnic, religious and linguistic groups.

It was a kind of personal rule rarely found among large, modern nations. "Indira is India and India is Indira," was a popular slogan among her supporters.

She died, however, a victim of the strong, centralized control in which she and her Congress-I (for Indira) Party held most of the reins of power against the strong pulls of regional, ethnic and religious groups for more local autonomy. The Sikh rebellion in the Punjab, for instance, started as a simple political dispute over water rights.

Indian politics were a way of life for her, a game that to some critics sometimes appeared to be an end unto itself rather than a means of achieving policy goals. While supporters talked of "Gandhi magic" and her political genius, others complained that her real aim was power for herself and her son Rajiv, the chosen successor who was sworn in yesterday as prime minister.

"She has always been a poor parliamentarian," journalist S. Nihal Singh wrote. "Her forte is the manipulation of men like pieces on a chess board and rabble-rousing speeches reducing problems to simple catch phrases, often weaving fiction with fact."

Mrs. Gandhi, who was assassinated just short of her 67th birthday, seemed destined for political power from the day of her birth, Nov. 19, 1917.

She was nurtured in India's fight for freedom from British rule, which was led by her father and grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru and Motilal Nehru, and recalled later that there was no room in her childhood for anything but the freedom movement.

Her father later became India's first prime minister, taking over as the country won its independence on the stroke of midnight on Aug. 14, 1947, and Mrs. Gandhi sat at his feet as a close confidant during Nehru's 17-year rule.

But she allowed the grass-roots support for her Congress-I party to crumble, which was reflected in recent Congress-I losses in local elections, although most India-watchers believed Mrs. Gandhi would win an easy victory on the strength of her personality in national elections that were expected to be held in January.

When she won election in 1979, after three years out of power, she said in an interview with western reporters that the party won "entirely on my name."

That victory was extremely sweet, since she was thrown out of office in 1977 in an election that revolved around the excesses of her 21-month harsh emergency rule that saw hundreds of thousands of Indians jailed without the guarantees of a trial and the forced sterilization of thousands in the name of birth control.

It was the signal that the Indian electorate had forgiven her for her excesses.

The emergency, a major blemish on the record of a country that boasts of being the world's largest democracy -- was imposed by Mrs. Gandhi after her rule as prime minister was threatened by a court order banning her from holding office because of election violations.

Mrs. Gandhi surprised India and the world by calling for elections in 1977. Even more surprising was the result, as she lost to a coalition spawned by Jayaprakash Narayan, an elderly veteran of the freedom struggle who was jailed for his opposition to her emergency rule, and including old-line politicians who were driven out of the Congress Party.

That vote was the true test of democracy in India. A largely illiterate Indian public unexpectedly had turned against a woman who had been considered the country's natural ruler when she overstepped her bounds.

Her latest victory appeared to signal a major change in Mrs. Gandhi. Loyalty became the major criterion for holding office, and the best badge of loyalty was to have been jailed on her behalf while Mrs. Gandhi was out of office. Thus two young men who had hijacked a plane to protest the possibility that Mrs. Gandhi might be jailed were freed when she returned to power and given seats in a state legislature.

Her closest associate was her youngest son, Sanjay, who stayed by her side during the emergency and her exile from power. He was clearly the heir apparent until he was killed in a plane crash while stunt-flying above New Delhi in June 1980.

His death devastated Mrs. Gandhi. She became withdrawn and scheduled visits to Hindu temples at every opportunity. With the highly personal rule she insisted on, government ground to a standstill, and, according to reports from family intimates and high-ranking government officials, she consulted astrologers frequently.

After Sanjay's death, Mrs. Gandhi turned to her oldest son, Rajiv, a pilot for Indian Airlines who had shown a disdain for politics, to become the heir apparent. Reluctantly, he ran for Parliament and began to take more responsibility for running the country, although he held no government office. He later became general secretary of the Congress-I Party.

Like his mother, he held regular durbars on the lawn outside of his house where Indians of all classes could petition him for help with their problems.

With the apparent attempt to create a Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Mrs. Gandhi tore apart the fabric of political succession. Her Cabinet during the past 4 1/2 years was widely regarded in India as one of the weakest in the country's history -- filled more with sycophants than strong leaders and administrators.

The same was seen as true in the states run by her party, where the chief ministers owed personal loyalty more to Mrs. Gandhi than the party of their constituents and often dared not make a move without consulting New Delhi.

At the same time, relations with Pakistan and India's other South Asian neighbors worsened during the past four years as she tried to assert New Delhi's hegemony over the region. Decrying the opposition Janata coalition's weakness in dealing with India's neighbors, Mrs. Gandhi said during her 1979 election campaign that "even little Bhutan is making eyes at us" -- a readily understood reference to a Hindu custom in which lessers are not supposed to look their betters in the eye.

Mrs. Gandhi especially bristled at any notion that mostly Moslem Pakistan was India's equal and objected strenuously to the United States' renewal of a military and economic aid relationship with Pakistan. The two countries have fought three wars since they were both carved from British India in 1947.

The strongest moment of Mrs. Gandhi's 15 years of running India probably came in 1971, when she helped the province of East Pakistan break away from West Pakistan to form the independent nation of Bangladesh.

That dismemberment of Pakistan, weakening India's traditional rival for power in South Asia, won Mrs. Gandhi the respect of many Indians.

But it also created grave social and economic problems for India, as millions of refugees flooded into the already overpopulated and poor country.

Despite her weaknesses, Mrs. Gandhi remained a commanding figure in Indian history, never deviating from her goal of advancing her country.

Like her father, she believed that improved science and technology held the key to progress. As an indication of the strong role she believed science should play, she always held the science and technology portfolios in the Cabinet.

She led India into the nuclear age, lifting the country to the status of a nonweapons nuclear nation with a 1974 atomic blast. She called it a peaceful nuclear explosion, but it raised fears of the spread of atomic weapons around the globe and deprived India of the benefits of nuclear technology from more advanced nations. As a result, India's program to supply nuclear power to its energy-starved industries lags. Under Mrs. Gandhi, India also became the first Third World nation to launch its own satellite on its own rocket.

But mainstream India never graduated from the bullock cart. Despite sending rockets into space and exploding a nuclear device, her governments failed to bring literacy to most Indians -- a major goal set down by the constitution -- or to improve health and sanitation and bring roads and water toIndia's villages.

Poverty is still widespread in India, with about half the population remaining below a very low poverty line.

India now feeds itself, however, and it appears that the days of killer famines are over -- thanks to the green revolution that was brought to the country largely with U.S. aid.

The area that benefited most from the green revolution was the Punjab, the breadbasket of India, which is populated largely by Sikhs, who gained enormous prosperity from their new grain surpluses.

Mrs. Gandhi traditionally was popular among the Sikhs. But her order in June for the Army to storm the Golden Temple at Amritsar, the holiest place of worship for Sikhs, unleashed a vast flood of anger among many who had been her supporters. Fundamentalist Sikhs, mixing politics and religion in their demands for a separate state, had turned the temple into an armed camp.

Political maneuvering by Mrs. Gandhi and her son Sanjay brought the leader of the fundamentalist Sikhs, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, to a position of influence in 1979, in an effort to divide Sikh votes so Congress-I could carry Punjab State. When the move failed, Bhindranwale turned radical.

Like a Chicago ward politician, Mrs. Gandhi concerned herself with the most minute details of politics and the administration of government.

When a group of Christians from the former Portuguese enclave of Goa wanted to build a church in New Delhi, for instance, they needed help from Mrs. Gandhi to clear bureaucratic logjams. They went back to her later when they needed help to get scarce cement.

Religious strife has plagued India since independence. Partition was marked by bloody riots, with at least a half million Sikhs, Moslems and Hindus killing each other during a massive population transfer.

Against this backdrop, Mrs. Gandhi held out her own family as an example for a modern India whose unity would come from its diversity.

Although she was born in a Brahman family -- the highest Hindu caste -- in 1942 she married a Parsi lawyer named Feroze Gandhi, who was no relation to Mohandas K. Gandhi, the spiritual leader of India's independence movement. She said her family did not oppose the marriage because he was a Parsi, a minority religion in India that worships fire. Feroze died in 1960 after the two had drifted apart.

Their two children also married outside the Hindu religion -- Sanjay Gandhi to a Sikh named Maneka, Rajiv to an Italian woman named Sonia. Until Sanjay's death, all three families lived together in Mrs. Gandhi's residence, but Maneka and her two children were asked to leave in 1982 when she asserted herself as a political rival to Rajiv Gandhi.

That soap opera was played out in public in a way that was most uncharacteristic of the strong ties that bind Indian families together.

Her own early family life was intermixed with the freedom struggle, and Mrs. Gandhi frequently recalled how her parents were often jailed by the British for their activities against the colonial government.

"With the police always coming to arrest my parents," she said later, "there was instability at home."

Her family burned their foreign-made clothes to protest British dominance over the Indian textile industry, and when she was 7, "Little Indu," as Mrs. Gandhi was called as a child, organized a group of children to spin cloth for their own clothes.

In her book, "My Truths," she wrote about a childhood crisis involving her favorite, foreign-made doll. "At last I made my decision and quivered with tension," she wrote. "I took the doll upon the roof-terrace and set fire to it. The tears came as if they would never stop and for some days I was ill with a temperature. To this day I hate striking a match."

She was jailed in 1942, at the age of 25, for her role in the "Quit India" movement. "Mud entered our souls in the drabness of prison," she recalled. "When I came out, it was such a shock to see colors again I thought I would go out of my mind."

But her childhood was not all hardship. Her family was wealthy and influential. She was sent away to school in Switzerland after her early education at a convent school in the northern Indian city of Allahabad. Later she attended Oxford for a year, where she came in contact with two powerful intellectuals who many believe shaped her view of the world and India's place in it.

One was V. K. Krishna Menon, who later became India's foreign minister and, during the birth pangs of nonalignment, the personal nemesis of U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles. The other was Harold Lasky, the Fabian socialist whose ideas contributed to independent India's state-centered economic policies.

After independence, she moved into her father's house with her two sons -- Rajiv was born in 1944 and Sanjay in 1946 -- to become his hostess, housekeeper and companion.

She held a party post when her father died in 1964 but later accepted a Cabinet post as minister of information in the government of prime minister L. B. Shastri. When Shastri died 18 months later, the political powers in the party named her prime minister because of her Nehru lineage and the feeling they could dominate her.

They soon learned differently.

Mrs. Gandhi was a woman of mercurial moods, warm and generous one minute, frosty the next. She was so vibrant during one interview that correspondents had trouble concentrating because she was making so much eye contact. Another time, however, it was hard to drag anything but monosyllabic answers out of her.

Friends called her misunderstood, but often agreed that she was hard to understand.

In or out of power she was a striking figure, generally dressed in simple but beautiful silk or cotton saris with a streak of white cutting across her wavy, black hair. In a country where jewelry is a sign of wealth, she rarely wore anything on her wrist but a large man's watch.

She once called reading her only hobby, although she liked taking long walks in the mountains, where she always picked the steepest path because she said hard times make a person strong.

She also appeared to enjoy her world travels as head of the Indian government, using her visits to other countries to see plays and cultural exhibits not readily available at home. During her infrequent visits to the United States, she liked to gather a wide mix of bright and successful women for evening discussions that were later described as exceptionally stimulating by people who were prepared to dislike her. She also was a fan of Broadway theater.

But running India is a different kind of theater, and it remains unclear after Mrs. Gandhi's death how the next act will play out. Her father, Nehru, set the country on a democratic course, committed to free elections even when the turbulence of a poor and overcrowded India seemed to threaten mob rule.

Gandhi's legacy remains in doubt, however, because of her authoritarian rule during the emergency, her insistence on retaining centralized power and her push for dynastic rule.