Royals Rule The Roost
The King is dead, long live the King! The Princely states were abolished years ago, but the power of royalty is still very much around as seen in the recent elections. The erstwhile Maharajas and Rajahs still bank on their royal legacy to enter public life. Shorn of their regal splendour, these scions of the erstwhile royal families have never fought shy of rubbing their shoulders with the commoners during elections
In accordance to Article 363A of the Constitution, the powers and titles of the rulers of the native states have already been discontinued along with the privy purses. However, despite the official and constitutional disbanding of privy purses, their lingering and pervasive feudal influence continues to dominate Indian polity. While royals have thrived under the political patronage given by the various parties, the parties too have benefited from these royal vote banks.
The Congress has lost its strong anti-feudal stance that it displayed during the initial decades after Independence; today the scions of former princely families find themselves very comfortable in the party.
Most members of India’s erstwhile royal families still prefer to be addressed by their royal titles. Many heads of former royalty have no compunction in continuing to use their titles in their official correspondence either. There have ceremonial roles, which continue till date to maintain traditions. The Maharaja of Puri, as the first disciple of Lord Jagannath, performs the Cherra Pahana, or sweeping the chariots with a golden broom, only after which can the Rath Yatra starts.
Even after they had all their princely privileges snatched away, with no more kingdoms that they can call their own, when it comes to elections, these ex-royals remain a force to reckon with. Most of them still stay in their crumbling palaces, clinging to the dreams of the glorious past, hoping to win back their lost power and glory through the hustings. Royalty may have been abolished in India, but the scions of former princely families continue to rule in their regions via the political route.
Nearly every state of the country has some erstwhile royalty in the political scenario. The royal house of Dogra in Jammu and Kashmir has Dr. Karan Singh as one of the senior most Congressman in the party. Five members of Himachal’s royal families are in the fray in these elections. Led by the veteran Virbhadra Singh, former ruler of Rampur Bushahr family, Asha Kumari of the Chamba Royal family, Maheswar Singh of the Kullu clan, Jyoti Sen, contesting for the Congress from Kasumpti are the others.
In Punjab, the Patiala royals have had a long and uninterrupted stint since “Rajmata” Mohinder Kaur, became the first woman from reorganised Punjab to enter Parliament in 1967 along with Nirlep Kaur, who won from Sangrur seat. Patiala sent another member of the family, Captain Amarinder Singh, to the Parliament in 1980. Later, after a long interval of around 19 years, Amarinder’s wife Preneet Kaur entered the Parliament in 1999 and is continuing as an MP since then. This time the clash of the titans is between Capt. Amarinder and BJP’s Arun Jaitley in the Amritsar seat.
Like previous years, Rajasthan too will see former princes in the Lok Sabha battlefield with all four in the fray this time being sitting Members of Parliament. The Congress has three royals in the fray while the BJP has one. In Jodhpur, the Congress candidate and Union Minister Chandresh Kumari Katoch, daughter of former Maharaja Hanwant Singh, is pitted against BJP’s Rajput candidate Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. Another Congress candidate and Union minister, Jitendra Singh is contesting from Alwar. In Kota, newcomer Ijeyaraj Singh, the scion of the erstwhile Kota royal family is in the fray. An alumnus of Mayo College, Ijeyaraj, who pursued higher studies in the United States, looks after the assets of the Kota royalty. Dushyant Singh, son of Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and a member of former Dholpur royal family, completes the list. He is contesting to retain Jhalawar-Baran constituency.
The former rulers and princesses of several erstwhile royal families of Gujarat have expressed their support for Narendra Modi. In a felicitation held two years ago, princesses and representatives from 16 royal families of Gujarat showered praises on Modi and in tune with tradition, the former kings presented swords and turbans along with a roll of honour to him.
In Uttar Pradesh, princely states may be things of the past, but the royalty is pretty much still around in this Lok Sabha election. From the nawabs to the rajkumaris, members of the erstwhile royal families are out in full strength to remain relevant in the public life via politics. Nawab Sayyid Muhammad Sharif Ali Khan Bahadur alias Kazim Ali Khan is the Congress candidate from Rampur Lok Sabha seat. In fact, the royal family is expanding its political base beyond Rampur. Begun Noor Bano, the widow of former Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Khan and mother of Kazim Ali, is the Congress candidate from adjoining Moradabad Lok Sabha seat. Ratna Singh, the rajkumari of Kalakankar state in Pratapgarh is seeking re-election from there this year. In fact, she is carrying forward the legacy of her father Raja Dinesh Singh, who was an MP from here in 1967, 1971, 1984 and 1989. Ratna too was elected from there in 1996, 1999 and 2009. Kushi Nagar is the fief of Kunwar Ratanjit Pratap Narain Singh, better known as RPN Singh, whose forefathers used to serve in the court of Majhuali state. This sitting MP, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs has been with the Congress party right from the onset of his political career.
Madhya Pradesh’s political history would be incomplete without the mention of its ex-royal leaders. To begin with, the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior—the Scindias—has been dominating the political landscape of the region since generations. They have won as candidates of national parties, as Independents, and even when they floated a regional outfit. Another parliamentary constituency where inheritors of erstwhile principality continue to hold their grip is Raghogarh Lok Sabha seat. The former royals from Raghogarh princely state are Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh and his younger brother Laxman Singh. Jaivardhan Singh, the son of Digvijay too has also joined the Congress.
In Chhattisgarh, Rani Shakuntla Singh’s mahal in Birha village of Janjgir-Champa district is in a dilapidated condition, but it still commands respect in the area. Shakuntla Singh has fought and lost two assembly elections from Pamgarh on a BJP ticket. Seven tribal royals fought the assembly polls last year.
There are nearly a dozen royal families from the tribal areas of Sarguja, Bastar and other districts who have been active in state politics. The British ran the region from Raipur and Bilaspur and the other parts were dominated by the royal families, most of them tribals.
Odisha, which is facing both the parliamentary and state assembly election, is seeing 16 royals in the fray. The ruling Biju Janata Dal has fielded eleven ex-royals followed by the BJP which has fielded four. Heading the pack of blue blood fraternity is the Balangir royalty. This time also, they are in full strength but their booming political ambitions have made them join the bandwagons of rival parties, keeping their familial ties on the backburner. Political parties have split the ranks by stoking the desire to regain the lost pre-eminence.
Of the 11 royal family members in the poll fight on BJD tickets, three will try their luck in parliamentary seats and the rest eight in assembly seats. Scions of erstwhile princely states will fight in one parliamentary and three assembly seats on BJP tickets. The Congress has, on the other hand, denied party ticket to Dhenkanal royal family member and seven-time MP and former minister Kamakhya Prasad Singh Deo this time.
The history of Odisha politics reveals that royal family members have all along been in the state assembly. Royal families of Balangir and Kalahandi wielded immense political clout and its members led Odisha’s first regional outfit Ganatantra Parishad. Former ruler of Patnagarh (now Balangir) Rajendra Narayan Singh Deo, who was chief minister from 1967-71 and former maharaja of Kalahandi Pratap Keshari Deo were the driving force behind Ganatantra Parishad which was regarded as the biggest rival of Congress in the 1950s and early 1960s.
BJP heavyweight Kanak Vardhan Singh Deo is the scion of the former princely state of Balangir. Suave and armed with quality education, KV has transformed himself from a flamboyant prince to a popular leader. KV, who has won all the four polls he contested, has been representing Patnagarh since 1995 and has served in the capacity of minister in various governments. He is presently the president of the BJP in the state. This time too he is pitted against his sister-in-law Prakruti Devi of the Biju Janata Dal, whom he had defeated in the last elections. His wife Sangeeta Singh Deo has been fielded from the Balangir parliamentary seat. She will be facing her brother-in-law, the sitting BJD MP Kalikesh Singh Deo from Balangir. Incidentally, Kalikesh’s father and Rajya Sabha member AU Singh Deo too is in the fray for the Assembly elections.
The BJD has fielded the scion of Nayagarh royal family, Hemendra Singh from Kandhamal and Arka Keshari Deo from Kalahandi. Arka Keshari Deo is a member of the Kalahandi royal clan. He will face sitting Congress MP Bhakta Charan Das for the Lok Sabha seat spread across 7 Assembly constituencies. Interestingly, his uncle, Raja Udit Pratap Deo and his wife Padma Manjari Devi joined the BJP last month with the hope of getting a ticket, but were in vain.
About 450 kms away from Rampur lives Nitesh Ganga Deb, the scion of the Bamra Kingdom. He definitely lacks political acumen but still managed to get a ticket from the BJP two days after he joined the party after switching over from the Congress. In fact, he is carrying forward the legacy of his father Pradipta Gangadeb, who was twice an MLA from there in 1990 and 1995. Nitesh was himself elected in 2004 but has to bite the dust in 2009 due to his poor performance. It waits to be seen of his people have forgiven him.
Anil Singh Deo, from the lineage of the Kalahandi clan too has been given a BJP ticket from Junagarh. Even the Odisha Jan Morcha has nominated a lone member of the Khariar Royal family, Deb Deb Singh Deo from the Khariar Assembly seat.
Nine of the royals in the fray are siting members. Both Usha Devi and Pratap Keshari Deb are ministers in the BJD-led government. AU Singhdeo, Praveen Kumar Bhanj Deo and Bijoy Ranjan Singh Barhia are former ministers. V Sugyan Kumarideo, the Khallikote Rani is making her tenth foray for the Assembly. She has been earlier elected nine times.
In Tripura, Maharaja Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Burman, the head of the royal house of Tripura and the sole heir of the over 800-year-old Manikya dynasty was invited twice to speak at the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School in Boston about the Indian government’s so called draconian laws in the Northeast and he spoke critically. He has been a member of the All India Congress Committee and an advisor to the Northeast Students Committee in Delhi, so he’s often in the capital. And, in fact, the Congress did offer him first a ticket for the state assembly in 2008 and then a Lok Sabha ticket the next year, which he refused.
In Bihar, the erstwhile Rajput princely states and the zamindari were very active in politics even before independence. Post-Independence, the Maharaja of Dumraon Kamal Singh was elected to Parliament in 1952 and again in 1957 from Buxar. Rani Lalita Rajya Laxmi of Ramgarh, was elected to the Bihar Vidhan Sabha in 1977 from Barhi and was four times elected to the Lok Sabha from Hazaribagh, Dhanbad and Aurangabad. The Maharaja of Gidhaur Pratap Singh was elected to Parliament in 1989 and again in 1991 on Janata Dal ticket from Banka Lok Sabha Constituency. After the State was bifurcated, political clans have taken over.
This is indeed ironic as despite being the world’s largest democracy, India has still not been able to sever the hierarchical ties that lie at the root of its politics and administrative setups.
By Anil Dhir