Where politics is all in the family. In South Asia, a few names have held the political spotlight for decades. Cultural traditions and strong family ties help keep it that way.

Politics in South Asia is very often a family affair. The recent election of Benazir Bhutto as premier in Pakistan, Rajiv Gandhi's tenure as prime minister of India, and the presidential election bid of Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandaranaike - matriarch of a leading political family - all testify to this fact.

Although democratic currents and modernization are weakening the feudal traditions and family ties that spawned dynastic politics, analysts agree that, throughout the region, a leader's family ties are crucial in building a political career.

``This is unique to traditional societies, even more so in Asia where the sense of family is strong,'' says S.Nihal Singh, a New Delhi political commentator. ``When someone has built up the aura of a great leader, it's easy to convince people that the aura has rubbed off on the progeny and family.''

Sri Lanka's Mrs. Bandaranaike, herself a former prime minister, became active in politics after the 1959 assassination of her husband, Prime Minister Soloman Bandaranaike. With the popularity of her family name, Bandaranaike holds a slight edge over her opponents in the presidential poll scheduled for Dec. 19, analysts say.

Many of Sri Lanka's Buddhist Sinhalese (80 percent of the population) regard her husband as a leader who brought government to the common man and elevated the Sinhalese language and Buddhism to national status. Yet, rooted in these very policies are the bitter issues that have ignited the five-year civil war between Sri Lanka's minority Tamils and the Sinhalese.

Similarly, the Bhuttos and Gandhis, and opposition leaders in Bangladesh, are finding that the very links that have made their families symbols of national identity have also made them symbols of controversy. This is partly due to their predecessors' mixed political legacies.

In Pakistan, Bhutto has achieved the distinction of becoming the first woman head of government of a Muslim nation. The populist legacy of her late father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was key to her election victory in November, analysts say. But she also had to tangle with the bitter memories many Pakistanis still retain of the political abuses during her father's reign.

Bhutto, analysts say, adroitly invoked her father's name while shedding his left-wing policies for a more centrist stance acceptable to the powerful military and establishment politicians. A member of an influential landowning family, Ms. Bhutto's political aspirations were nurtured by her father who called her ``a chip off the old block.'' Officials in her Pakistan People's Party say she also made her own mark through the jail terms and self-imposed exile that followed her father's execution in 1979.

And, after Mr. Bhutto's 1977 overthrow, his family came to symbolize democracy and resistance to the military rule of the late Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

``History is replete with people who have depleted their political inheritance,'' says Salman Taseer, a party official and biographer of the elder Bhutto. ``Benazir has shown that she could pull through.''

But in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), the legatees of national leaders - Sheikh Hasina Wajed, daughter of Bangladesh's founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of former President Ziaur Rahman - have failed to do the same.

Despite a strong political tradition, a desire for a nonmilitary regime, and an openness toward women unusual for an Islamic society, they have been unable to mount a effective challenge to strongman Hussain Muhammad Ershad. Recent natural disasters in the country as well as infighting between the women politicians have tended to sidetrack their bid.

``The two ladies have split Bangladesh down the middle,'' says Mr. Singh, the commentator. ``The appeals of the father and the husband offer separate visions.''

Across the border, another political scion faces tougher political problems. Rajiv Gandhi is grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and son of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. For many Indians, the Nehru-Gandhi family represents a tenuous thread of continuity and unity in a nation often torn by ethnic and religious strife.

Gandhi, a former airline pilot, joined politics reluctantly after the death of his brother, Sanjay, who was being groomed as heir apparent. Rajiv came to power after his mother's assassination in 1984 and later won a landslide victory leading the Congress Party, which has dominated post-independence India.

But, in general elections due by the end of next year, some political analysts say Gandhi could be vulnerable.

For months, Gandhi has been in a political tailspin, buffeted by terrorist violence in Punjab State, embarrassing election losses, and scandals in his administration.

A national opinion poll last summer said Gandhi's party could lose its large parliamentary majority against a united opposition.

In a reelection bid, Gandhi would be helped by the family lore and the security that many Indians associate with the Nehru-Gandhi name. The opposition has only ruled for a chaotic, two-year period in the late 1970s.

Countering that, however, are a growing disenchantment and a sense, even in far-flung rural areas, that he has bungled his chance to rule.

``Rural India is very clear about who it wants to reward and who it wants to punish,'' says Ashis Nandy, an analyst at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies. ``In rural areas, people think Mrs. Gandhi was more sympathetic to the lower groups. They see her son as having betrayed that inheritance.''

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