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September 9, 1999


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The Rediff Election Special/ Vaihayasi P Daniel

Maharaj may no longer be the flavour of the electoral season in Gwalior, but he will still win Guna

The kingdom of the Scindias, Deccan Marathas -- which was established in 1754 -- has shrunk by roughly 62,000 sq km in the last 250 years. Now approximately 26,100 sq km, it is nevertheless a proud piece of land -- fertile fields of channa and wheat, forests, sandstone quarries and ravines -- to lord over... And lord over the territories of Guna and Gwalior, a hundred years after the dynasty's heyday, is still what the Scindias do via the democratic process. A ballot paper kingdom.

Though Madhavrao Scindia won Gwalior by a slender 26,279 votes in the 1998 general election and has switched constituencies to Guna this year, the devotion of simple villagers for this political monarch has not changed all that much. Folks still, it is said, touch the dust Scindia trods through, in reverence.

At Dhaulagarh village (population: 5,000) in Guna, attitudes are very indicative of the sentiments of the region. Village elders, enjoying the evening breeze outside their whitewashed brick and mud homes, tell you, "Not vote for a Scindia? Don't you know this family's history and tradition? They are people of influence and devotion. They have been around here for years." But has not this Maharaja-Maharani regard changed in the modern age?

Agrees Narayan K Shetwalkar, a former BJP MP, "the attitudes in the villages for the Scindias has not changed too much."

The village's anachronistic devotion can be forgiven if you hop across to the Jai Vilas palace at Lashkar Gwalior. Scindia may be one of the few people's representatives in the world to live in a palace with 365 rooms. The acres of lawns outside where peacocks musically call out are equally impressive.

Friend or foe, most residents of this region will reluctantly admit that the Scindia glamour -- that brought England's future Edward VII here in 1874 for a protracted spell with a retinue of 1,000 courtier -- has not waned significantly. Madhavrao's mother, Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, has been known to donate a few 100,000 rupees from her personal funds to help a village in distress. Villagers at Dhaulagarh mention being allotted Rs 150,000 to alleviate their water problems.

While regard for the revered Rajmata is mostly intact, some locals feel Madhavrao's charm has worn off bit.

"If he is still a raja, then am I still a ghulam?" asks Jaybhan Singh Pavaiya, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate in Gwalior and the man who gave Madhavrao a fright in 1998, angrily. "He has stayed away from the people. His distance with people is the main reason for his lack of popularity."

Alleges a political observer in the area, "people have realised how proud he is. He is so proud that if 500 people do not gather at the railway station to greet him he gets upset. And he wants to be called Maharaj."

Says Anoop Mishra, the BJP MLA from Gwalior and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's nephew, "The raja equation is over. He has not done anything to help the people here."

Proof of Madhavrao's dwindling power -- though not the clan's --- is said to be his sudden exit for Guna.

The Scindia family's entry into politics in this region began when the Rajmata won her first Lok Sabha election in 1957. As the story goes, the Rajmata turned herself over to the service of the nation, to make up for generations of tacit Scindia support to the British.

Since the 1970s she and her son have divided political control of the region. Madhavrao first won a Lok Sabha seat in 1971 and has won every successive general election. In 1984 he changed seats and moved to Gwalior to be pitted against Vajpayee. He has been victorious in each election from that constituency too.

For the first time in nearly 15 years, Scindia has now returned to Guna to contest his seriously ailing mother's erstwhile seat -- some claim at the cost of his sister Yashodhara Raje's parliamentary career. Yashodhara Raje, the youngest of the Rajmata's children and the popular BJP MLA from Shivpuri, has nursed Guna in her mother's absence through two Lok Sabha terms.

The sudden switch, it is said, is reason enough to believe Madhavrao has realised that dynasty days are over. After a few days spent in Gwalior and Guna one heard nearly 15 different accounts of why he changed constituencies.

"The people of Guna and Shivpuri started saying since he won by only 26,000 votes in Gwalior last time it shows the people there were doing him injustice. And why did he not come and run from this constituency again? And Maharajsaheb agreed," says Ramesh Sharma, Scindia's long time aide.

"He won by such a slender margin last time. That scared him. And he realised his Raja charm would not work," says Anoop Mishra.

Says the afore-quoted political observer, "He was angry with the people of Gwalior for voting him in with such a small margin. In anger he kept away from here. Suddenly the elections were announced. He knew he did not have time to work to improve that margin. So he left for Guna."

Explains Balendu Shukla, Scindia's schoolmate and his most preferred man in the region, "In the last election a lot of people won with less then 25,000 votes. That is no reason to get anxious. He has not lost an election. If a candidate wins over and over again in a constituency people take him for granted and believe they don't have to vote, because he will win anyway. The party workers take the situation for granted and do not work hard enough. And Guna was weak."

Scindia scuttles most allegations and declares he had always been interested to go back to Guna. When his mother declared her candidature from the constituency he continued in Gwalior. This time around, her retirement from politics prompted him to return.

His opponents maintain the sudden change of horses, after a win with poor margins, was absolutely necessary, because of a flagging relationship with the people. A common criticism floating about the town and Gwalior constituency is that Scindia has not worked hard enough. Nor, it is said over and over, has he kept a close enough relationship with the people and often stayed away. Says Scindia, "I came 2, 3 times a month."

Holes are picked in his work. "He always says give me some big project and I will do it. He does not want to be bothered with small problems," says a senior journalist in Gwalior. "He does not do what he promises," charges Shejwalkar, "He is just a hero." "He works on projects that will benefit his own class of people," say a number of critics.

The achievements widely attributed to Scindia are the establishment of the Banmor and Malanpur (where 100 units operate) industrial estates, opening of the rail line between Gwalior-Shivpuri and Etawah in UP, expansion of the Gwalior station, building the Gwalior airport, building the local station, establishment of several large factories in the area and a series of better trains to the city.

Scindia adds to this list achievements he considers most significant -- electrification of the entire area, numerous irrigation projects and a serious contribution to improving the infrastructure of the area. He and his associates also maintain that his work extended through both constituencies. In a few interior villages that this correspondent visited, projects like setting up handpumps and electricity were mostly attributed to the Congress.

Whatever the reasons, Scindia's departure for Guna has put to rest any speculations that he might not make it to the 13th Lok Sabha. Most believe -- and even BJP workers will privately admit -- he is likely to win Guna with a thumping majority.

Over at the Bombay kothee, the Scindia's country manor in Shivpuri, the royal lifestyle goes on, albeit a mite muted. Maharani Madhaviraje, Madhavrao's wife who belongs to an aristocratic family of Nepal, is about to set out on a 10 hour Jan Sampark. About 10 cars are queued outside the bungalow. Aides scurry around placing bags, thermos flasks and lunch packs into the appropriate vehicles.

Madhaviraje emerges looking fresh and exotic. A ripple of excitement passes through the awaiting coterie. Draped in a startling floral chiffon sari that delicately covers her high coiffure, she drips jewelry. Diamond elephants sparkle in her ear lobes. A pearl necklace is wrapped around her neck and a glittering bracelet adorns her wrist. More elephants nestle near her knuckles glitter-coated nails, a puffed hairstyle and striking make-up giver her a Hindi film star appearance, circa the 1960s. Bearers and minions all over the verandah and grounds convulse with simultaneous pranams. She graciously chats for a few minutes.

"Each time he has stood I have campaigned for him. He began here in Guna. They are very glad to have him back. They were very distraught when he left. I have had to clarify that the symbol has changed. I usually carry pictures of my husband and the symbol (a Styrofoam hand attached to a stick rests on the front seat of the car). I am told some BJP workers have gone around saying the symbol for the mother and son are the same.

"Campaigning in the monsoon is a bit difficult," the maharani confesses. "For instance, I had to go out and meet some ladies who had gathered, even though it was raining. They were appalled. You don't have to do this. Even if you don't campaign we will vote for you."

She departs thereafter to "wash up" for her tour and sends someone to show us around the lodge and grounds ("this is not a palace," she corrects us). The gardens are populated by a series of Scindia family cenotaphs. Nearby is Madho Park, the site of serious hunting expeditions in centuries gone by and the reason for the lodge.

Even if Guna is a tranquil refuge -- as his detractors declare -- from the reality of Gwalior's diminishing affection for royalty -- few believe the constituency will be his permanent base. Says the political observer, "Madhavrao will be back in Gwalior. There is the prestige difference. Gwalior was once a state. Guna is part of a state. Gwalior is where development is possible. And he would want a convenient constituency. How often can he run 6 hours back and forth to Guna by road? Gwalior is just an hour's flight from Delhi."

Scindia does not totally reject the possibility, "Gwalior is my home," he says. Another theory that persists is Scindia has to move back to Gwalior to groom his son, Jyotiraditya, to take over the constituency.

An even more compelling reason to move back may be to restore peace in the family and allow his popular sister Yashodhara Raje to take over their mother's mantle in Guna.

Declining royal charm or not, the Guna-Gwalior area has a chance of being ruled by a Scindia -- be it brother, sister or nephew -- for another 50 years. One can only agree with the local murmur, "A Scindia cannot lose around here."

Photographs: Vaihayasi P Daniel

The Rediff Election Specials

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