The Commoner Prince

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Madhavrao Scindia: A Life
Madhavrao Scindia: A Life
Vir Sanghvi and
Namita Bhandare
Penguin/Viking
395 pp; Rs 550

WHILE THERE have been many dynasties in Indian politics, the fascination with the Nehru-Gandhis is rivaled only by the one royal dynasty that became a political one — the Scindias of Gwalior. It often seemed as if the Gwalior scion Madhavrao Scindia was ascending to a well-orchestrated script — from the power of royalty to the royalty of power. The achievement of this first Scindia biography by senior journalists Vir Sanghvi and Namita Bhandare is to show that this was not so. It was never as simple or easy for Scindia — he was himself an eager scriptwriter, wont to making rapid changes, much to the discomfort of others. It’s by no means a critical biography, but neither have the author duo penned a hagiography. We find ourselves with a well-written, sympathetic study that steers clear of casting Scindia as a plaster saint.

The story of the prince’s rise to national political prominence as a senior in the Rajiv Gandhi government is well known. Less public is his fascinating early history, on which Sanghvi and Bhandare justly spend almost half the book. Here, they answer the question of how Madhavrao, born in the purple, transitioned into the modern age. The key lies in the years Scindia spent at Winchester School and Oxford University, where the maharaja learned to live like a commoner, and seems to have liked it. Though he carried out his ostensible ‘royal’ duties in Gwalior and respected the sentiments of his ‘subjects’, he rarely let it go to his head.

Scindia began his career as an executive at Bombay Dyeing before jumping into politics on a Jan Sangh ticket, the party in which his mother Vijayaraje was a senior member. Then, stunningly, after the Emergency, in which his family was mercilessly persecuted, he joined the Congress Party. Why? Since he joined the party when it was down and out, the authors are left only with Scindia’s own explanation: “I found after a while that the Jan Sangh was so full of hypocrisy that anyone with a modern education just couldn’t have lasted there.” A telling point, perhaps, for both the Congress and the Jan Sangh’s successor, the BJP.

Scindia became a senior Congress leader with ministerial stints in both the Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao governments. But suddenly, he was forced to exit the party after a strange prosecution for corruption in the Jain- Hawala case, a charge he was eventually cleared of, and which remains mysterious to date. Then, as Scindia was consolidating his position in the party, he was killed in a plane crash.

This biography does not help much in arriving at a definite assessment of a life that was cut so abruptly short. Scindia did not leave behind any great political legacy — he was a solid minister but his achievements seem amorphous. His life’s feat, instead, seems to have been just the energy it took to evolve from the palace to Parliament. He was talented, young and savvy, but he never went beyond the cusp of his own history.