YEH HAI INDIA
PIC OF THE DAY
Gift your parents good health
One week seems like an awful lot of time to secure an interview with a 31-year-old contesting his first election. But Jyotiraditya Scindia is no ordinary politician, even if the bypoll for the Guna parliamentary constituency, scheduled for February 21, happens to be his debut in electoral politics.
He was crowned 'maharaja' of Gwalior last year, after his father Madhavrao Scindia, a charismatic leader and seasoned politician, died in a plane crash on September 30. Now, he must win the Guna by-election by a margin that will match, if not surpass, his father's record of over 200,000 votes set in the previous election here. That and only that, he believes, will be a true homage to his father, a revered figure in the Gwalior-Guna-Chambal region.
Though he had been by his father's side in all his electoral battles, an active political role was farthest from Jyotiraditya Scindia's mind till the afternoon of September 30. After studying at Harvard and Stanford and stints at Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, he had set up his own investment firm in Bombay -- Scindia Investments Private Limited. Working hard and keeping a safe distance from Page 3 parties, the Scindia scion was focused on deploying the vast family resources in a more planned and productive manner.
All along, he knew that one day he would have to follow in his father's footsteps, but that he would have to do so with him no longer around was unimaginable. Pankaj Upadhyaya spoke to the young maharaja in his SUV on the now-bumpy-now-smooth road to Shivpuri in Guna district. Excerpts:
Had it not been for last year's tragic events, what, do you think, we would have found you doing today?
I knew all along that public service would be central to my life. But as you have just said, one never imagined that it (the beginning of my political career) would be in such tragic circumstances.
However, to answer your question more directly, my role, ever since I got back from the US after graduating from Stanford and even prior to going to business school, has always been that of on the one hand managing the family business and on the other playing a social/non-political figure in the Gwalior-Guna-Chambal region. In any given year [I] always spent a minimum of three to four months in the region on a social basis. Now that role has changed.
This change of role has brought you from the glitzy corporate world of Bombay, where you managed an investment firm, to the dusty roads of Guna. How do you strike a balance between the two?
No, this has never been a problem. I won't use the world problem; it has never even been an issue. Because, right from a very, very early age my father grounded in me the concept of adaptability. It [the Gwalior-Guna-Chambal region] is very much a part of my being, it's enshrined in my constitution, my heart. This is where my roots are. This is where my foundation is, my base is.
I went to school in Bombay and after that I went to boarding school in Doon. Always when there was a vacation, instead of going abroad, we would be here. So, woh kehte hein na, sharir mein khoon aur pani ke saman sammilit ho jata hai [you can say that this region runs in my body as water and blood]. To be very honest, I am always happier in the rural parts of the constituency, in the villages [where] everything is tranquil and at peace with itself. And at the same time, you pluck me out of here and put me in between a bunch of investment bankers from Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley or Merrill Lynch and I'll talk their talk. My effort in life has always been to garner as many different arrows in my quiver as possible.
That is why, if you go back 12 years -- and I am not saying I have a lot of experience, [I am] just 31 years old -- whether it is my undergraduate experience at Harvard or my jobs, the very fact that I have gone through a job culture -- worked at Merrill Lynch, worked at the United Nations as the only undergraduate intern in the history of the UN. After that my job experience at Morgan Stanley where I worked for four-and-a-half years, again from bottom up.
That was in New York?
Started in New York, moved to Hong Kong and then set up the Bombay office. After that my Silicon Valley experience -- I was working in the summer there for a venture capital firm. So on the one side you have all this -- the educational and corporate experience -- but it has always been peppered with a sound foundation, sound base which my roots represent. Over the period of 12 years that we are talking about, from 1990 to 2002, every election I have been here, campaigning. This is not something new. The circumstances -- even the word tragic, I think is not apt to describe the situation I am in today -- are tough, but this [the electioneering] is not something alien or something new to me.
In Bombay you kept a very low profile. One never saw you on Page 3 of The Bombay Times.
My family has always been very low profile. It's something I owe to my father. Right from a very early age he taught us to excel in whatever we do by the sheer dint of hard work. And only through the inculcation of these ideals I have been able to be successful in whatever little way I have in the last 10-12 years. And to answer your question, not to say that one does not have the right to enjoy oneself, but the issue is, what are one's priorities?
Whatever we talk about, we keep going back to your father. Do you still miss him?
I miss him every day. My father was a very important part of my constitution, he was everything for me in my life. It's been over four months, but in a lot of ways he is still helping me in getting through this.
How would you describe your relationship with your father. Was it formal? Was it friendly?
I cannot describe him in any other way than to say what I have already said -- he formed a very, very important part of my existence.
But were there certain things you two never agreed upon? For instance, he was passionate about cricket, while you love hockey.
I don't think that's a disagreement. Every individual has to develop his own interests. I think the best part of any relationship -- I still have a lot to learn, so I should not be writing definitions -- is when two persons agree to disagree. My father was a very open-minded person. He spread around a lot of pleasure, happiness and satisfaction. Not just me, but anyone he touched grew in his own way.
Talking of cricket, your father was just as passionate about the game as he was about promoting it in Gwalior. What plans have you drawn to take his work forward?
My sole intention at this point of time is to ensure that I fulfil all his dreams and yes, cricket does form an important part of it.
You have observed your father's political life from close range. Now that you yourself have entered politics formally, is there anything you would want to do differently from him?
My father set an example and an unassailable precedent in his public life. And I just hope that I will be able to serve the people as well as he did. Therefore, to answer you question, even if I am to measure up to him, I would consider it my biggest achievement. So, no, I don't think there is anything that I could say that if done this way it would have been better.
But a lot of people say that your father was prime ministerial material and that he was denied what was rightfully his. What do you think?
These are just conjecture. My father was a devoted worker of the Congress party and he was also devoted to the people of his constituency. As far as both these commitments were concerned, he performed to the best of his ability. As far as your question is concerned, it's a hypothetical question, how can I comment?
Does it bother you that the seat of the erstwhile Scindia kingdom -- Gwalior -- is under the control of a rival party, the BJP, now.
We are living in the world's largest democracy. We have to abide by democratic norms and traditions. Anybody can contest from anywhere and win.
Any plans to return to Gwalior, politically that is, after securing Guna?
At this point of time my aim remains to represent and serve the people of Guna.
Soon after your father's demise, there were reports of attempts being made to take you to the BJP camp. Is it true that some top BJP leaders were in touch with you?
Joining the Congress was a very emotional and individual decision for me. I have grown in a very secular and liberal environment, and as such there was no question of joining any other party.
You have not answered the question. Were attempts made to wean you away from the Congress?
I have answered your question (laughs).
One of the most talked about aspects of the Scindia household was the not-so-cordial relations between your father and his mother, your grandmother the late Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia. What kind of relationship did you share with her?
My father till my grandmother's last days loved and respected her and everybody in this country knows this. As far as I am concerned, the fact is that I am also a part of her blood and in her lifetime I have also ensured that I respected her and cared about her.
Moving to the election at hand, Guna is considered a stronghold of the Scindia family. Both your grandmother and your father have won successive elections from here with monstrous margins. Why then have you felt the need to have Sonia Gandhi campaign for you?
Well, I think an election is always an election, is always an election. One must never take an election lightly. If you look at my movements in the last 15-20 days or so, I have been, on an average, covering 25-30 villages a day. And as I said earlier in our conversation, I always try to do a task that is entrusted to me to the best of my ability. After you have given your best, the rest is up to God. One must never have regrets at a later point that I could have done a little more.
But you have spent just one day in Gwalior after filing your nomination.
Well, this is just the beginning. In the coming months and years I will have to think how best I can develop the Guna-Shivpuri area. So it's important for me to take my first step with all seriousness.
The Election Commission has asked voters to bring along some proof of identity when they come to the polling booth. Do you think this could discourage voters and bring down the voting percentage?
For us in this election two new things have happened. One is that for the first time in this constituency EVMs [electronic voting machines] are being used and the second is the Election Commission's insistence that every voter must carry proof of his identity. As far as we are concerned, we will try our level best during campaigning, and also on February 21 [when polling takes place], to ensure that more and more people exercise their franchise. But the answer to your question will be known only on the 21st of this month.
Mr Scindia, this may be your first election, but you are already speaking like a seasoned politician. Circumventing all tough questions and answering in detail the easier ones. But this careful, circumspect Maharaj is in complete contrast with the Yuvraj who was known for his penchant for fast cars.
Who told you about my penchant for fast cars (laughs)?
I have been talking to your friends and aides and they tell me it is impossible to follow your car, especially when you are in the driving seat.
I think everyone has a right to some minor vices if not major. I don't normally like passing on the blame, but I think this is one gene that has unfortunately been carried through many generations in the family -- my grandfather, my father, myself and my greatest apprehension now is that my son has the same gene. At a very early age in his life, he is already crazy about cars. That's going to be my biggest nightmare in the years to come.
You have also done a course in car-racing in the US?
Now who told you about that? I have no comments (laughs).
I told you I have been talking to people who know you and...
Ruk jao (stop)!
No, that last bit was not meant for the interviewer. Maharaj had spotted a crowd of less than 20 people -- most of them old, frail and dressed in tattered clothes -- waiting by the roadside for him with garlands in folded hands. By the time his motorcade stopped and he got off his Tata Safari, the crowd had swelled to around 100 people.
We left Jyotiraditya Scindia to worry about the welfare of these people and the millions of other who inhabit the land his forefathers once ruled. There is another problem he must tackle urgently - someone is giving out family secrets, like the Maharaj's penchant for fast cars.
Photograph: Pankaj Upadhyaya