A politician goes on a princely padyatra

First Print 11 Nov 18

NK SINGH

“Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”

–         George Orwell, 1984

The turbaned attendant, dressed in the palace uniform, walked in barely after we had settled in our room in the royal family’s guest house. He brought in a silver tray that carried a bottle of scotch whiskey, fine crystal glasses, ice bucket, a siphon for pumping soda and a little something to munch.

As he placed three glasses on the table, we looked at him enquiringly. Only two of us were in that room — GV Krishnan of the Times of India and myself, who used to work for Indian Express then. “Maharaj Sahib aa rahe hain,” he said gravely, bowed, and left the room.

We were guests of Madhavrao Scindia, the scion of the erstwhile princely state of Gwalior and the Congress MP from Guna. He had invited us to Shivpuri for coverage of the padyatra that he planned to undertake of his constituency. He had also, graciously, put us up at the guest house where he was staying.

Scindia soon came, exchanged pleasantries, and informed us that 80 years ago his grandfather, the late Madhavrao Scindia, had also undertaken a tour of his kingdom on a horseback. As we finished the first peg, the Maharaja got up and told us that he was going to attend to other guests and party workers who were waiting in the courtyard.

As soon as Scindia left, the turbaned attendant entered our room, as if waiting for the cue. He briskly placed the scotch bottle, glasses, siphon and ice bucket on the tray, bowed to us again, and left. We were flabbergasted. None of us was a heavy drinker. But at least the guy might have shown the courtesy of asking before removing the tray. After a little while we realised that this was the normal practice! We laughed, and we cursed.

The epilogue is equally revealing.

Next day we left on the padyatra with the Maharaja. It was a princely padyatra, no doubt. Accompanied by a whole crowd of admirers, followers, cronies, brass band, battery of newsmen, TV crew and video cameraman, Scindia would cover seven assembly segments of his Lok Sabha constituencies over the next seven days.

“Our former empire was spread over 26,000 sq miles, larger in size than Greece,” he told a suitably impressed representative of the Sunday Times, who had flown in from London to cover the event.

The highlight of the padyatra was the evening durbar. Every evening Scindia would pitch his tent in a village for the night halt where he would hold an open durbar. With district officials in attendance, the prince-turned-politician would take on-the-spot decisions to solve people’s problems.

Covering one such durbar, as we returned from the padyatra one night, we found a bottle of whiskey – ‘Indian Made Foreign Liquor’ this time – waiting for us on a bed-side table.

The bottle remained untouched.

It was February 1984, the Orwellian year.

HOW TO BECOME A VIP

My first ever meeting with Madhavrao Scindia, the scion of Gwalior’s princely family was probably the most memorable one. The year was 1979. The Janata Government had just collapsed after a disastrous two-year run. Fresh elections had been called.

I was in my office – I was the Indian Express correspondent at Bhopal at that time — when the phone rang. The called identified himself and asked me whether I would like to meet “His Highness” Madhavrao Scindia. I, of course, immediately said yes.

Scindia, then 34, was the most colourful of political personalities in Madhya Pradesh. He won his first Lok Sabha election at the age of 26 on a Jana Sangh ticket, apparently at the behest of his mother, Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, one of the leaders of the party. The Congress government put the Rajamata in Tihar jail during the Emergency. Her son went to London.

After the Emergency was lifted in 1977, Scindia contested as an Independent candidate. He defeated Janata Party’s Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon of INA fame, by a margin of 76,000 votes at the height of Janata-wave.

What sealed the renowned freedom fighter’s fate was the fact that the Rajamata, a leading light of the Opposition, refused to campaign against her son. The story, with all the ingredients of a pot-boiler, was irresistible to any reporter.

On the appointed date and time, I reached Union Carbide guest house, where Scindia was staying. Union Carbide guest house is even now probably the most beautiful of locations in Bhopal, perched atop Shamla Hills, overlooking the town’s sprawling lake.

I was in for a shock when I entered the guest house’s huge lounge. It was chock-a-block with people, all of them waiting to meet ‘His Highness’. Here is one popular leader, I thought.

The Maharaja’s aide informed me that because of the big rush, Scindia was running late. Waiting for the next half an hour to meet the prince, sipping Union Carbide supplied tea, I realised that many of those hanging around had actually been invited to meet him and then made to wait! This was a practical lesson in how-to-become-a-VIP.

Never trust a politician, I thought.

First Print 11 November 2018

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