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February 28, 1998


Campaign Trail/ Ayaz Memon

For the Scindias, it certainly pays to be royal

As Election Day approaches, the former maharaja of Gwalior, Madhavrao Scindia, approaches each day with the rigour and regimen of a menial worker in his kingdom. By 9 am, he is firmly ensconsed in a smallish but functional office in the Raj Vilas Palace, working out the day's campaign programme with his associates, sifting through mail and missives, doling out time judiciously to well-wishers, media people and plain hangers-on. It's a long day ahead and, for all his resources, time is in short supply for the maharaja.

A stone's throw away, Rani Mahal is a study in contrast. Tranquillity reigns, with only a few retainers in attendance apart from a couple of Bharatiya Janata Party functionaries who are looking after the affairs of Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia. The Rajmata's constituency, Guna, is about 250 km away, in interior Madhya Pradesh, but the lady herself lies 320 km north-west, in the Apollo Hospital in the capital, fighting for life. Time is running out for her too, albeit in a different context.

The Rajmata is reportedly suffering from myesthenia gravis, some unconfirmed sources even mention a severe heart problem. Whatever the nature of ailment, many reckon this is a losing battle, yet nobody doubts that the Rajmata will win the election hands down. "Her absence will help her get a bigger victory margin," says one of the retainers at Rani Mahal, "The people of Guna will show their devotion by voting for her, and the people of Gwalior by voting against her son."

Another engrossing chapter in this bitter tug-of-war between mother and son, between royalty and royalty, between ideology and ideology, is now getting a fresh coat of paint.

The last time, of course, it was smoother going for mother and son. Madhavrao had it relatively easy. Breaking away from P V Narasimha Rao's Congress, he had contested as an Independent, with covert support from the BJP which had decided not to field a candidate against him, and the victory margin was huge. The Rajmata had token resistance and won by an even bigger margin.

This time, however, the conflict has been resumed, and with greater intensity. The BJP has put up Jaibhan Singh Pawaiya, and with fears of a saffron wave in MP, the Gwalior constituency may not be a walkover.

Whatever their personal relationship, in public the Rajmata and the maharaja are locked in a no-holds-barred contest. The mother is one of the most respected members of the BJP, the maharaja, in the emerging power-hierarchy in the Congress (he rejoined the party last year), a potential prime ministerial candidate. It is a battle more symbolic than real and reflects the great political divide which haunts India today.

By 10.30 am, Madhavrao is getting frantic. He is already half-an-hour behind schedule, and he has street corner and campaign meetings scheduled for the day. The morning will be spent in the rural areas, the evening in Gwalior city itself, the time in between for administrative purposes. A helicopter awaits him just outside Gwalior limits -- Madhavrao does not want to fall foul of the Election Commission, so the chopper cannot be brought closer -- and by 11 am, the Maharaja finally decides that if he does not leave now, he might never. He agrees to an interview in the evening, and insists that in the meanwhile, the people of Gwalior be interviewed to "gauge their support". The confidence of the Scindias is known to be legendary.

Gwalior, though, can wait till evening. How the mother is coping in absentia is the more intriguing story, and a two-hour drive through the rugged terrain of interior Madhya Pradesh brings you face-to-face with the upholders of loyalty to royalty. In Shivpuri, which is the town where the Rajmata's constituency begins, electioneering is low-key, but the mood distinctly saffron.

The fruitjuicewallahs in the heart of town explains why: "This is a vote of tradition. Whatever happens, the Rajmata will never lose here." A man standing nearby adds an interesting dimension to this loyalty, "If she stood from the Congress, she would still win. It has nothing to do with party, it has to do with the Rajmata." Even if she has not come to campaign? "That doesn't matter," says the man who has now taken over from the juicewallah. "And her daughter, Yashodhara, has been around in her absence in any case."

After the man leaves, the fruitjuicewallah makes a startling admission. "Yeh to bhav aur dabav ki baat hai(this is to do with emotion and pressure)," implying obviously that peer pressure will rule even if emotions are swayed. The Rajmata has no contest, as the BJP's district secretary states emphatically and the Congress district secretary accepts reluctantly.

Back in Gwalior, the maharaja has already hit the city's crammed, dirty roads raising a lot of dust and noise with his convoy of cars and cronies. Trailing him becomes a ride of a lifetime as the rickshaw driver, a real desperado, takes on the pot-holed streets and hawkish cops with wicked relish, with no thought for the innards of the occupants.

He only slows down when asked a question: Will the maharaja win again from Gwalior? The rickshaw driver replaces speed addiction with candour. "We rarely get to see him. What do these politicians do anyway? Look at the roads. But he will win. After all, he is the maharaja."

Five minutes later, after finishing a street-corner meeting, Madhavrao Scindia beckons to a seat in his car for the interview. As the car moves along the narrow lanes, people throng close, thumping the bonnet heartily, greeting the star occupant with folded hands. Then, in one of the most congested parts of the city, the car is mobbed, cannot move further. The maharaja lowers the window and is garlanded by hundreds.

Finally, one man comes and whispers in his ear. "They have been waiting for you all day. They are loyal supporters." Madhavrao Scindia opens the door, steps out and is soon lost in a deluge of garlands, handshakes and cries of, "Maharaj Zindabad!" Inside the car, one of the associates says, "Yeh to ab jeet gaya (now he's definitely won)."

For the Scindias, mother and son, it certainly pays to be royal.

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