In all of its years since independence from British colonial rule in 1947, India has been governed (with two brief interruptions) by one family, Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. It mixes a multitude of ethnic and secular communities and yet has practiced universal suffrage as the world's most populous democracy. Its location under the shadow of the People's Republic of China, sharing the Asian subcontinent with the rival state of Pakistan, gives it enormous strategic importance, enhanced by nuclear capability.

No small wonder that "shocked" was the one word common to the reactions from the statesmen and expert analysts on the implications of Gandhi's assassination. Partly it was too much more of the same: assassinations and terrorism. Partly it was the prospect -- after almost 18 years of Indira Gandhi as the most visible symbol of stability -- of India's facing a leap into the dark.

When you are through with the on-the- other-hand analysis of what comes next, the bottom line is a period of profound uncertainty and a potential, as one authority put it, for "immense explosions."

But the collective shock owed something to the American public's attention span, to the way we establish security priorities, to a tendency to divide up the world between friends and enemies. What struck me about the initial response to Gandhi's assassination was that it required an act of brutal violence against the head of state to bring India back, figuratively as well as literally, to the American screen.

It is not as if nothing had been happening on the Asian subcontinent before Gandhi's death. Beginning five years ago, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. interests in Pakistan had taken on a new importance. This country has seen Pakistan for many years as an anti-Soviet buffer, and the Soviet presence in Afghanistan made Pakistan all the more significant. For it is through that country that U.S. clandestine aid to the Afghanistan rebels is funneled.

But this puts Pakistan in an awkward position with the Soviets so close at hand. So Washington has increasingly sought Pakistani good will with infusions of military aid. But the aid we give Pakistan for its security against the Soviets is received with its own security problems vis-a-vis India very much in mind. And this, quite naturally, has made the Indians not only nervous but threatening.

Rumors have been flying. There has been talk of an Indian preemptive strike to destroy a Pakistani nuclear plant at Kahuta. There has been talk of a tightening U.S. relationship with Pakistan under which the United States would offer nuclear protection if the Pakistanis would give up the idea of a clear capability of their own. The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan was credited with a pledge of U.S. aid if India attacked. Pakistan's foreign minister, Yaqub Khan, has warned that Pakistan "would have no alternative but to retaliate" if India attacked.

You can write some of this off to a war of nerves inherent in an Indian-Pakistani relationship that has never been comfortable since the agreement that established Pakistan as an independent state. But you cannot write off India as incidental to U.S. security interests, however difficult it may be for many Americans to accept a relationship with a nation that refuses to choose sides, depends on Russia for its military power and applauded the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

On television the other day, Henry Kissinger spoke of India's "cold-blooded balance-of-power foreign policy." India, he said, "wants to make sure it is surrounded by weak states. It uses Soviet arms to establish a militarily predominant position. It conducts a foreign policy perfectly explicable in terms of Indian tradition and Indian requirements. And since we don't want anything from India other than it be independent and non-expansionist, there is no reason why India and we cannot have a good relationship. India is not a Soviet stooge." Now that is a definition of a vital interest, but also of a subtle and prickly relationship that is not calculated to command close attention by the general public in this country.

Hence, the phenomenon of the world's most populous practicing democracy out of American sight and mind.

We can now expect the U.S. focus on the Asian subcontinent to intensify among the makers and shapers of U.S. opinion and U.S. policy -- and the movers and shakers in the Soviet Union, as well. The murder of Gandhi has put a very large question mark over a part of the world of crucial East-West concern.