India struggles with the prospect of a tumultuous transition away from government by political dynasty

FOR years, Congress (I) Party loyalist Rajesh Kumar Mishra had supported Rajiv Gandhi and his mother, Indira, before him. Now that Rajiv is dead, Mishra says that only Gandhi's widow, Sonia can take up the party leadership. ``There has to be a leader from the Nehru-Gandhi family. Otherwise, no one will support the Congress,'' Mishra said.

As former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's ashes are scattered in the sacred river Ganges today in a final farewell ritual, many Indians still cling to its longtime political dynasty.

Now, with no immediate family member poised to take charge, India's turbulent democracy grapples with a political vacuum that culminates years of dynastic decline, the erosion of Congress supremacy, and the emergence of new political forces.

The Indian dynasty is among a handful of powerful families which have presided over post-independence politics in volatile South Asia. Across the region, they have translated social and economic prominence into modern political clout. Yet in shaping politics, they have also paid a high price in violence and tragedy. Increasingly, dynastic politics has been challenged and checked by powerful militaries and shifting political loyalties.

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto followed in the footsteps of her late father and powerful feudal landlord, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to rule for 20 months before being ousted by the Army a year ago.

In Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, widow of a former prime minister, is herself a former prime minister and now leads the country's major opposition party. Her husband was killed by a nationalistic Buddhist monk who resented government policies toward the country's Tamil minority.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia took office after winning the country's first free and fair poll in decades earlier this year. Her late husband, Ziaur Rahman, a former Army general, was murdered in a coup.

In India, the Nehru-Gandhi family is the force behind Congress, which spearheaded the independence movement from Britain. For many Indians, the Congress has been a force for stability and the underdog. Lead by Brahmins and upper castes, the Congress has played on the traditional caste role of Brahmins as protectors of the lowly against exploitation by the middle castes.

For years, the party thrived on a coalition of upper and lower castes and Muslims and was seen as a check on the excesses of this tumultuous predominantly Hindu nation.

``I can't believe he's dead,'' Nazia Begum, a Muslim woman sobbed at the funeral of Rajiv Gandhi. ``He was the king.''

But even before Gandhi's death, India's dynasty was already in eclipse as the political equation had begun to shift. In recent years, traditional rifts widened, spawning an array of political parties along caste and religious lines that have chipped away at Congress supremacy.

In 1989, Gandhi was voted out of office amid corruption allegations. During the campaign which lead to his death, Gandhi had shunned his intense security of the past and, ironically, died trying to regain the people's favor and the dynastic magic.

As a sign of the times, India has given Rajiv Gandhi a subdued sendoff. Absent is the hysteria and torment that followed the death of his mother in 1984. With distaste and dismay, many Indians have watched Congress leaders and Rajiv's cronies, desperate to stay alive in India's big money politics, pressure Gandhi's Italian-born widow into taking over as party chief.

India was already in crisis before Rajiv Gandhi died. Now, the choices are more stark and compelling.

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