The world's most powerful woman is fighting for her political life. Found guilty of violating a campaign practices law, India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is threatened with expulsion from office. While her lawyers appeal, the slight, iron-willed Mrs. Gandhi furiously rallies support among her 586 million countrymen.

Few public figures are better equipped for survival than the woman once described as "Empress of India." The only child of the late Prime Minister Nehru and his crusading wife, Kamala, Mrs. Gandhi, 57, was raised in an atmosphere of political fervor. "My public life started at the age of 3," she once reflected. "I have no recollection of playing with other children. My favorite occupation as a child was to deliver thunderous speeches to the servants while standing on a high table. All my games were political ones. I was, like Joan of Arc, perpetually being burned at the stake."

Her father, a leader in the Indian independence movement, was imprisoned repeatedly by the British, and her mother was often absent—on political work when not in jail. Raised by an autocratic grandfather in Allahabad, the lonely, precocious Indira often had to run the household herself, issuing orders to a full staff of servants. "The whole house was always in such a state of tension that nobody lived a normal life," she recalls.

Many Indians believe that while those years gave Mrs. Gandhi her toughness and stony independence, they also scarred her. Between the ages of 13 and 20, her weight remained a frail 75 pounds. Today, though she has overcome a variety of ailments, including tuberculosis, she remains withdrawn and suspicious. Paradoxically, she enjoys few close personal ties but is a tireless, charismatic campaigner who seems strengthened by a hard day in the villages.

Although her marriage to the late Feroze Gandhi, a lawyer and member of parliament, was shattered by her involvement in her father's career, she revels in the intimacy of her own tight-knit family. The prime minister's official residence, a bungalow in the capital of New Delhi, was once a simple two-bedroom home. But when her two sons, Rajiv, 31, an Indian Airlines pilot, and Sanjay, 29, an automotive engineer, were married, a room was added on each time. Mrs. Gandhi has only a bedroom and a study to herself, and shares the rest of the house with her sons, their wives and Rajiv's two children. "There is not a place where you can sit undisturbed," complains an aide. "A daughter-in-law will come by. Grandson Rahul or his sister, Priyanka, will drift through. Or one of the three dogs will wander in."

Her daily regimen is an exacting one. Up at 6:30 a.m., she exercises, then showers and dresses in less than 10 minutes. (She is meticulously neat, folds and puts away her own clothes and will not allow a scrap of paper to remain on the floor.) Breakfast is usually coffee and fruit. She has two offices and eats a bowl of soup at one of them at 11 a.m. She almost always goes home for a lunch of toast, yogurt and mango or other fruit. She works until 7 or so, and then after dinner—she never eats beef and has no skill as a cook ("I can just do something with an egg")—she works at home until 10:30. If she entertains, the guest list is small since her dining room can seat only 12.

She loves doing crossword puzzles and, although her appetite is small, she likes to save recipes. She also squirrels away articles on weight reduction (she keeps herself at a trim 118 pounds). An enormously proud grandmother, she once passed a handwritten note to her aides during a campaign helicopter ride, which said: "News bulletin. Important. Rahul's first tooth came out." The grandchildren call her "Daadi," or Granny.

A compulsive housekeeper, Mrs. Gandhi can hardly set foot in a room without straightening a picture or adjusting a cushion. Her approach to political matters is said to be equally orderly. "She has a fantastic ability to compartmentalize her mind," says an assistant. "She will work on one problem, then put it aside and turn her mind to something quite different." Even now, threatened with the loss of her power, she stubbornly refuses to panic. "You must learn to be still in the midst of activity," she maintains, "and to be vibrantly alive in repose."