Straddling royalty and politics

Sandip Ghose | Updated on July 18, 2021

Title: The House of ScindiasAuthor: Rasheed KidwaiPublisher: ROLI BooksPrice: ₹285

A riveting account of Scindias’ royal and political journey

In post-Independence India, barring the Gandhis, no other dynasty has captured the mind space of the nation as the Scindias of Gwalior, who have effortlessly straddled 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 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. 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.

Treasury of nuggets

Kidwai is like the custodian of a toshakhana (treasury) of political nuggets. 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.

With a state the size of Greece, the Scindias were probably the only royals who had an equal presence in 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 all across India.

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 Subhash 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, Kidwai says, fancied himself as Rasputin) have all been well documented in the past. But, in providing an account of Vijaya Raje’s role in the 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 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”.

Like many, Kidwai also believes that Madhavrao Scindia was “one of the best Prime Ministers” India never had. He writes 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 omits the names.

While the Jyotiraditya portion remains work-in-progress, the political journey of Vasundhara Raje after a failed marriage makes for a riveting read. In the introduction, Kidwai talks about the perils of writing about living politicians. But, he achieves the task consummately — 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.

The reviewer is a current affairs commentator and corporate strategy advisor

Published on July 18, 2021

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