In her nine-day tour of the United States that begins today, Indira Gandhi seeks to stress that India's close friendship with the USSR has been misunderstood. India, she says, is a nonaligned nation, not a Soviet ally.
The Indian prime minister's intended audience, diplomatic and political observers believe, is much larger than the US government and public she will be addressing directly through meetings and media appearances.
It includes the Soviet Union, whose heavy-handed wooing has recently embarrassed the Indian government and prompted it to seek a more balanced image worldwide. It also includes India's colleagues in the nonaligned movement, many of whose eyebrows have yet to be lowered after India's initial lukewarm stand on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its recognition of the Vietnam-installed, Soviet-backed regime in Kampuchea (Cambodia).
In a series of interviews with American news media here, the Indian prime minister has maintained that India's friendship with the USSR has long been misrepresented in the West as being pro-Soviet. A key reason, she has suggested, is that India chose socialism as its official economic policy.
Mrs. Gandhi's official visit, her first in more than 10 years, begins July 26 in New York. It is primarily intended to perk up Indo-American relations - which both sides candidly concede need some improvement. Last year they fell to a 10 -year low when the Reagan administration announced a five-year $3.2 billion military credits and economic aid package to Pakistan, India's historic antagonist, and agreed to sell Pakistan F-16 warplanes as well.
Now, both India and the United States are clearly signaling they would like to patch up. The fence-mending they have in mind would frankly acknowledge major policy differences but move beyond them to build on common strengths and interests such as economic, scientific, and cultural ties.
But whether Mrs. Gandhi's repeated theme that she is neither pro-Soviet nor pro-American, just pro-Indian, will convince American skeptics remains to be seen. Less than a year ago, a senior American official said that while the Reagan administration did not see India as part of the Soviet bloc, it did view Indian policies as ''reflexively pro-Soviet.''
Later last year, a veteran Western diplomat identified Gandhi as ''a large part of the problem in Indo-US relations.'' In comments considered remarkable for their candor, the diplomat said Gandhi ''has a deep-seated suspicion against the United States. She really believes the United States would like to see India less powerful, which is just not true.''
Lately the Gandhi government has muted both the volume and quantity of its complaints against American policies that annoy it, in preparation for a smooth and friendly visit. But over the years, analysts have seen no such willingness to publicly criticize Soviet actions and policies.
And though Indian officials portray the new US-Pakistan arms and aid relationship as a danger to subcontinental stability, they see no such danger in India's formal friendship treaty with the Soviet Union or the inflow of Soviet arms to India.
With such American suspicions in mind, Gandhi will be portraying India as a would-be friend to all, a grateful beneficiary of assistance from all who are willing to help, and an ally of none. A chief goal, a Western diplomatic observer here says, is to achieve a more ''centrist'' position for India in the international order.
An infusion of American private investment and technological know-how are important side goals of the Gandhi visit, according to Delhi-based analysts.
India has recently relaxed some of its rigid controls over both the input and output of private business here and is seeking more private capital and collaboration, particularly for high-technology and export-oriented industries.
The US is seen as a good source of money and high-technology skills, so aides traveling with Gandhi will be emphasizing business opportunities in their country.
India also has been alarmed at the falling levels of both US bilateral aid and American contributions to the low-interest loan pots of multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank.
In meetings with President Reagan and with congressional leaders, Gandhi is expected to press for more concessional aid - for India in particular and for the third world in general.