New Delhi — In a burst of sycophancy, a state chief minister called Indira Gandhi a goddess who should be worshipped every day.
In one national election her party campaigned on the slogan, ''Indira is India, India is Indira.''
And to millions of ordinary Indians she is ''mataji,'' revered mother.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi towers over the Indian political scene - the unquestioned mistress of her ruling Indian National Congress-I Party (I is for Indira) and the Parliament she commands by sweeping majorities.
So it is that the world's largest democracy has rammed squarely into a paradox. Its political system is virtually under the thumb of one woman. And concern grows that Mrs. Gandhi's rule is undermining the democracy that brought her to power.
Celebrating 35 years of independence this August, Indians have known 31 years under Nehru family rule. Mrs. Gandhi's father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's prime minister for a continuous 17 years. She has held the job for a total of 14 , and few Indians have much doubt that, barring unforeseen circumstances, her son, Rajiv, will succeed her.
Ultimately it will be up to the voters, because India's elections are largely free and fair by most world standards. But in numerous conversations and articles, thoughtful Indians reveal growing concern that their political institutions are crumbling.
The Indian National Congress Party, the grand national coalition that spearheaded India's independence movement, is a tattered remnant, held together by one woman's commanding personality and formidable energy.
And to many Indians there are only two alternatives: Indira Gandhi - and her son by extension - or the abyss of anarchy. ''The heart of the problem of Indian politics (is) the country's critical dependence on an individual for political stability and order,'' says Girilal Jain, Times of India editor.
Adds a diplomatic observer of the Indian political scene: ''You have one great person, Mrs. Gandhi, and a lot of small individuals scurrying around her skirts.''
To her critics, who question her commitment to democracy in the first place, the dominance of the prime minister signals danger ahead for the Indian democratic system.
Indeed, it looked like the demise of democracy in the world's second-most-populous nation when Mrs. Gandhi declared an ''emergency'' in 1975 and took on broad authoritarian powers. The press was censored, thousands of political opponents were jailed, and the judiciary was stripped of its independence. It looked like the all-too-familiar pattern among third-world countries - promising democratic starts degenerating into one-party or dictatorial rule.
But then came an astonishing series of events:
* India's then-dictator voluntarily put herself up for election.
* The voters, whose endorsement she expected, unceremoniously tossed out of office their leader for the past 11 years.
* Then, after the coalition government they chose collapsed from its own infighting, Indians trooped to the polls to bring Mrs. Gandhi back. Most political analysts saw not only a stunning personal triumph for Mrs. Gandhi, but proof positive that democracy was alive and well in India.
''If you look at India since independence, its most remarkable achievement has been political rather than economic,'' says a knowledgeable Western diplomat. ''It's holding together in a framework acceptable to all its citizens, and the core and heart and soul of this framework is the parliamentary system.''
Still, analysts across the board see numerous cracks in the foundations of India's political stability.
Despite the hearty welcome back Mrs. Gandhi received from the Indian electorate in early 1980, there is a residue of distrust and suspicion that she may initiate another ''emergency.'' Mrs. Gandhi insists she will not for a practical reason: It was a one-time shock treatment that wouldn't work a second time.
''She's committed original sin,'' says a Delhi professor. ''She cannot get back the trust that was there. Her record indicates what she's capable of doing.''
Mrs. Gandhi's defeat in the 1977 election, preceded by the spectacle of her party members deserting her in droves for the Janata (People's) coalition, left her with her own legacy of doubt and distrust. Loyalty to her and her now-deceased son, Sanjay, during their out-of-power years has become the prime criterion for party and governmental advancement.
As a result, her Cabinet is widely considered to be the least competent since independence. Her hand-picked state chief ministers, theoretically the choice of the state assemblies, are loyal political nonentities.
State assembly candidates, too, are picked by Delhi. In 1980 state elections, the loyalty test was whether ticket seekers had gone to jail on behalf of Mrs. Gandhi and son Sanjay during her 33 months out of power.
When Mrs. Gandhi was jailed briefly during the Janata-coalition years, two of her male supporters protested by hijacking an Indian Airlines domestic flight. When Mrs. Gandhi returned to power, the case against them was quickly dropped; both were rewarded with seats in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly.
Mrs. Gandhi presides over a party crumbling from its lack of grass-roots organization and internal democracy. Most state and local units haven't had internal elections in years. In several key states the Congress-I legislative majorities depend on the fickle loyalties of defectors. Turncoat politicians elected on other party tickets are wooed over to Congress-I by promises of influence, power, and, many Indians say, cash.
Comments S. Nihal Singh, a former Indian Express editor, ''Madamm , as she is known in the party, remains seemingly supreme, but the hollow frame over which she presides becomes more apparent as she directs a rabble rooting for money and power.
''The problem, of course, is that Mrs. Gandhi is running a one-person party in a ramshackle democracy, and the two concepts are increasingly tending not to mix.''
India's opposition parties are weak and divided. While regional and national opposition parties have captured a few statehouses, none come close to challenging the Congress-I on a national scale. India's two leading communist parties are split ideologically, and most noncommunist parties have too many warring chiefs and not enough Indians.
The best-organized noncommunist opposition party is the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is accumulating strength and building up networks at the grass roots. But it is hampered by its association with the RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sangh), a militant Hindu organization, which scares off Muslim and other minority voters.
None of the opposition parties now poses a national alternative to the Congress-I, and none of their current leaders can match Mrs. Gandhi's nationwide charisma, stature, and vote-drawing power. For a democratic system whose health depends on having two or more parties to choose from, the lack of a clear second party means the country could be in for shaky coalition governments, should the Congress-I stumble and finally fall.
For the Congress-I itself, ''everything depends on her [Mrs. Gandhi's] ability to appeal directly to the electorate. Everything turns on her own standing,'' says a political analyst. ''She's concerned about the weaknesses of the organization. She realizes she is all Congress-I has.''
Mrs. Gandhi herself put it best midway through the balloting that swept her back into power in 1980. Talking to American correspondents, she maintained, ''the party felt they wouldn't win the election if I didn't stand. They have won entirely in my name, not in the party's.''
And, she added, ''I have no illusions that all these people are for me. They think I can get the votes.''
Analysts pin the blame for the absence of a strong party organization and second-echelon leadership squarely on Mrs. Gandhi.
''She won't allow strong men to rise in the party because they might challenge her,'' one observer says. ''She doesn't know how to delegate authority. The re-creation of a strong Congress-I may not be possible.''
A woman of remarkable energy and stamina, Mrs. Gandhi plays politics with zest and skill. But even admirers fault her for not turning her vast power and ability into solving India's domestic problems or pushing through the ''20-point program'' of social and economic goals that has been her and her party's basic platform since 1975.
''She doesn't seem to be capable of organizing herself or others to do a great deal about it,'' says a longtime observer. ''She can't turn the charisma in these directions, and/or she doesn't have the apparatus, the structure, which would carry out with any ability the 20 points. I keep seeing a dichotomy: somebody who has such great power, and the translation of that great power into something that has an impact.''
To many Indian political observers, one of the most alarming phenomena in contemporary India is the spread of corruption throughout the political and administrative system. ''Corruption has spread to every part of the governmental apparatus,'' says B. K. Nehru, governor of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. ''A large number of politicians and ministers are corrupt.''
India has its share of honest politicians, of course, but it is an article of faith here that politicians use their years in power to feather their and their families' nests.
The result has been widespread cynicism about politics and the political system. Writes Mr. Jain, the Times of India editor, ''politicians as a class have become a byword for venality, corruption, and incompetence.''
A young doctor from Bihar state complains bitterly, ''In politics, the scum of our society has risen to the top.''
Warnings that the Indian political system is in decay have been sounded at the highest levels. In his farewell address to the nation this summer, former President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy noted that ''a mere facade'' of elections and elected representatives did not make a democracy.
Reddy listed restraint, moderation, understanding, accommodation, decency, and uprightness as the basic values underpinning a sound democratic system.
''If we ponder over the country's political scenario and examine how far our conduct of public affairs is inspired by these qualities, we can have little cause for satisfaction,'' he said.
''Our people have shown a clear preference for the democratic system. But if we make a mockery of it, will the public, whose disillusionment is daily growing , accept this state of affairs for long?''
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