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The Scindias: Straddling royalty and politics with equal ease

Sandip Ghose | Updated on July 13, 2021

Top gun: Like many, Kidwai believes that Madhavrao Scindia was ‘one of the best Prime Ministers’ India never had   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Rasheed Kidwai’s book on the Gwalior royal family is as much a palace chronicle as it is a companion volume to modern Indian political history

* Prima-facie the book can be read as a collection of biographical sketches of the last three generations of the Scindias

* With a state the size of Greece, the Scindias were probably the only royalty who had an equal presence in Bombay (Mumbai) and Delhi

* The most fascinating part of the book is the section on Vijaya Raje Scindia

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In post-Independence India, barring the Gandhis, no other dynasty has captured the mind space of the nation as the Scindias of Gwalior. Among the erstwhile rulers of the ‘princely Indian states’ the Scindias have effortlessly straddled between electoral politics and their ‘royal’ heritage. Though scions of other ‘royal families’ have dabbled in politics none have been able to leverage their lineage as well as the inheritors of the ‘House of Scindias’. This is what makes Rasheed Kidwai’s book so interesting. It is as much of a palace chronicle as it is, a companion volume, as it were, of modern India’s political history.

Prima-facie the book can be read as a collection of biographical sketches of the last three generations of the Scindias set against the historical backdrop of the Gwalior royal family. But, in tracing the lives of the protagonists, Kidwai gives the readers a fish-eye view of the politics surrounding their lives starting with the matriarch — the Rajmata of Gwalior. Kidwai is like the custodian of a toshakhana (treasury) of political nuggets. His encyclopaedic memory of Hindi-heartland politics can shame an elephant. Copiously researched, the book ran the risk of becoming anecdote heavy. But, he weaves the narrative expertly around the characters to make it a part of their life story. There lies his achievement as an author.

The House of Scindias: A Saga of Power, Politics and Intrigue / Rasheed Kidwai / Roli Books / Non-fiction /₹395

 

In his not-to-be-skipped foreword to the book, journalist Sankarshan Thakur writes — “[The Scindias] had adapted to the ways of elected democracy smartly and seamlessly... they were astute about allocating their eggs... (in) different baskets... for the Scindia enterprise to remain a going enterprise”. Later he talks about the Scindia’s “malleability of investment in ideology and politics”. The most recent instance of that we have seen is Jyotiraditya Scindia’s switch from the Congress to the BJP.

There is a third dimension. With a state the size of Greece, the Scindias were probably the only royalty who had an equal presence in Bombay (Mumbai) and Delhi. They not only had vast swathes of prime property across cities, Madhavrao also dabbled in business. Kidwai tells us how at one time Madhavrao was the second largest shareholder in an investment company of the Bombay Dyeing family, when Nusli Wadia was having a spat with his father. He also served as a non-Executive Director on the Bombay Dyeing board for a period. Bombay’s sophisticated and contemporary society gave them a window to the world of glamour and business, while Delhi was their political playground. This, arguably, added to their national profile and acceptance across geographies of North, Central and Western India.

Pivotal part: Kidwai gives an account of Vijaya Raje Scindia’s role in the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

As is to be expected, the most fascinating part of the book is the section on Vijaya Raje Scindia. It goes much beyond tracing her reluctant entry into politics at the instance of Jawaharlal Nehru and subsequent transition to the Hindu Mahasabha and Jan Sangh. Not many know that Vijaya Raje “had always been drawn to revolutionaries such as Subhas Chandra Bose and others who opposed Gandhi’s pacifist ideology”. It was with the idea of weaning away the Scindias from the Hindu Mahasabha that Nehru pulled them into the Congress. Subsequently, however, the Rajmata was disillusioned with the Congress, especially Nehru’s handling of the 1962 Indo-China Conflict. She was particularly resentful of the scheme calling upon women to donate jewellery for the cause.

The Rajmata’s travails during the Emergency, the tale of the mother-son rift and the role of Sardar Sambhajirao Angre (who, according to Rasheed, fancied himself as Rasputin) have all been well documented in the past. But, in providing an account of Vijaya Raje’s role in formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Kidwai delightfully digresses to many unknown side alleys in the early history of the BJP.

The most explosive among them is the theory of an alleged understanding between Balasaheb Deoras and Rajiv Gandhi (arranged through Balasaheb’s brother Bhaurau) leading to RSS cadres supporting the Congress in 1984. Kidwai leaves a broad hint of a quid pro quo — writing “RSS wanted Rajiv to open the locks of the Babri Masjid — Ram Janmabhoomi site — and give clearance for (Ramanand Sagar’s) Ramayana to be aired on Doordarshan.” Later he goes on to quote Atal Bihari Vajpayee, from his book Na Dainyam, Na Palayanam wherein he wrote, certain BJP leaders wanted to confine him to Gwalior in 1984. Rasheed asks enigmatically — if it was “Rajmata or Advani, or both?”

Like many, Kidwai also believes that Madhavrao Scindia was “one of the best Prime Ministers” India never had. He writes at length about the hostility between Scindia and PV Narasimha Rao under a facade of camaraderie. He gently touches upon Madhavrao’s proximity to Sonia Gandhi and how he helped her find a toehold in politics after Rajiv’s death. He also makes passing mention of “Madhavrao’s reputation as a ladies’ man” but skilfully omits the names.

While the Jyotiraditya remains work-in-progress, the political journey of Vasundhara Raje after a failed marriage makes for a riveting read. Not only making her way through the patriarchal leadership of BJP in Rajasthan, but how she held her own against BJP’s most powerful duo in Delhi since 2014.

In the introduction, Kidwai talks about the perils of writing about living politicians. But, he achieves the task like a consummate statistician — revealing what is suggestive and leaving out the vital for the imagination of his readers. But, he is generous with hints to make it a page turner.

Sandip Ghose is a current affairs commentator and corporate strategy advisor

Published on July 13, 2021

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