A progressive prince

Print edition : October 13, 2001
Madhavrao Scindia, 1945-2001.

HE was the maharaja who could never be king. Madhavrao Scindia often used to say about himself that he lacked the political instinct to become Prime Minister. "I am not manipulative enough," he would say to suggestions that he could one day be the Prime Minister of India. But this lack of the "killer instinct", as he put it, did not come in the way of his becoming one of the most sought after leaders of the Congress party. In fact, in the five consecutive years that the Congress has now been out of power at the Centre, he had emerged as the most modern, progressive and dynamic face of the party, a leader who possessed the qualities that could potentially propel it out of its moribund state.

Scindia's leadership credentials were impeccable. Democratic pluralism was a matter of faith with him and his belief in the principle of secularism went far beyond the cliches that are often the currency of political exchange. Despite his royal inheritance, he had taken to the grime of electoral politics with ease, while retaining the mystique of his distinct identity.

V. SUDERSHAN

In the post-Rajiv Gandhi era, when the Hindutva forces were on the ascendant and the Congress, under an infirm and geriatric leadership, was proving singularly ineffective in tackling this challenge to its basic ethos, Scindia emerged as a ray of hope. His firmly secular convictions, which were articulated at enormous personal cost, and his progressive, modern outlook, made him a natural leader for the new circumstances that the Congress found itself in. Yet the prickly play of personal ambitions within the Congress ensured that he would not gain anything easily. It was only on account of the Congress' poverty of resource in Parliament that Scindia was nominated to the position of Deputy Leader of the Opposition. It was a role in which he acquitted himself creditably, making him a credible figure for future leadership.

Scion of the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior, Scindia died when he was at the threshold of his most productive years in politics. The Gwalior dynasty has been the most intensely politically engaged among all the former royal families of India. Scindia's mother Vijayaraje Scindia was actively associated with the Jan Sangh, and its new avatar, the BJP, till she died early this year.

A nine-term member of the Lok Sabha, Madhavrao Scindia never lost an election since 1971, when he won for the first time from Gwalior at the age of 26. He contested as an independent with the support of the Jan Sangh, a party that his family had for long patronised. In 1977, he switched to the Congress despite resistance from his larger family, and won the Gwalior seat a second time. In order to avoid a direct contest with his mother, he later shifted to the neighbouring constituency of Guna. But in 1984, he was nominated the Congress candidate in Gwalior as a last-minute manoeuvre to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party's Atal Behari Vajpayee. Needless to say, he won by a massive margin. Since then Scindia contested from either Gwalior or Guna and won on each occasion.

Scindia's unique claim to the loyalty of his constituency was proved in 1996 when he was denied a Congress nomination in the Lok Sabha elections on account of the Jain hawala scandal. He contested on the ticket of a freshly minted party and won from Guna with reasonable ease.

BORN on March 26, 1945, Madhavrao Scindia was educated at the Scindia School - endowed by his family - in Gwalior, and then at Oxford University. He was steeped in all the indulgences of Indian royalty - polo and cricket, notably - but entered the world of politics at a precociously young age. The 1984 election, which saw a new generation typified by Rajiv Gandhi assuming power, also brought Scindia his first experience as a Minister. He made his mark as an excellent administrator during his stint as Railways Minister in the Rajiv Gandhi Ministry. He is credited with the modernisation and computerisation of the Railways and with maintaining the most cordial and professional relationship with his managerial cadres.

P.V. Narasimha Rao made him Minister for Civil Aviation. He faced a turbulent period of agitation by the staff of the domestic carrier, Indian Airlines, and as part of a strategy of disciplining the workforce he leased a number of aircraft from Russia. Early in 1992 one of these aircraft crashed, though without any loss of life, and Scindia promptly submitted his resignation. Although not known to be too finicky about such notions as ministerial accountability, Narasimha Rao accepted his resignation. Scindia was later reinducted into the Cabinet in 1995 as Minister for Human Resource Development. This followed the rebellion by the Madhya Pradesh heavyweight Arjun Singh, when Narasimha Rao realised that he needed to broaden his base of support within the Congress in order to survive in office.

In 1996, he along with Arjun Singh and other Congress dissidents had the opportunity to be part of the United Front (U.F.) government at the Centre. Although his Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress was part of the U.F., Scindia himself opted to stay out of the Cabinet. His first priority obviously was to return to the Congress and resume his old political bonds. His opportunity came when Narasimha Rao was ousted as Congress president after a string of indictments in corruption cases.

Scindia came into his element when Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress president. Lacking the political dynamism of Indira Gandhi and the dynastic charisma of Rajiv, Sonia Gandhi, who also suffered a linguistic handicap, often had to depend on Scindia to perform essential parliamentary responsibilities. He used to handle day-to-day party affairs both inside and outside Parliament, frequently represent the Congress in all-party meetings and in business advisory committee meetings when Parliament was in session. This was bringing him increasingly into close contact with the party cadre, investing greater credibility on his claims to a leadership role.

In some of the most significant debates in Parliament in recent sessions, it was Scindia rather than Sonia Gandhi who led the Congress charge. His ability to speak Hindi and English equally well and his skill in articulating a point often rendered the ruling benches speechless. His effective floor coordination strategy in the Lok Sabha earned him the admiration of politicians across parties.

Realising that the onslaught of the BJP's brand of Hindutva politics could not be countered by the Congress acting alone, Scindia had consciously started coordinating strategies with the Opposition parties, especially the Left. His impeccable secular credentials, which had even led to strained relations with his own mother and sisters, earned him the respect of the Left parties. Scindia was careful though not to identify himself with the more effervescent elements of the Left agenda.

With the BJP-led government at the Centre seeming to lurch from one crisis to another, political circles have often debated the possibilities of an alternative arrangement. The Congress being next to the BJP the largest party in Parliament, it was naturally expected to play a pivotal role in such an alternative. But most prospective partners of the Congress were fairly unanimous that Sonia would not be an appropriate choice for Prime Minister. That left Scindia alone as a credible alternative. The Left parties for their part were fairly agreed on this. Scindia was also considered acceptable to other People's Front constituents like the Samajwadi Party, whose president Mulayam Singh Yadav had a personal rapport with him.

ALL this was not to be; circumstances willed otherwise. Late in August 2001, with the monsoon session of Parliament under way, Scindia granted a rare interview to this correspondent. He dwelt over a range of issues, speaking with little artifice. He was passionate in his criticism of the government over the Agra Summit, which he described as one of the "biggest diplomatic and media disasters" India had ever been through. Other items in the government's catalogue of failures that he mentioned were the ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir, the Tehelka expose, the UTI scam, and the truce effort in the Northeastern region. He then made the ominous forecast that the government would not last long: it would fall under the weight of its own failures. This would be an outcome greatly to be looked forward to, since in his opinion the National Democratic Alliance government was the most "unholy mess witnessed in the last 54 years", which had taken the country to the "brink of disaster".

When asked what would come next, since the Congress did not appear to be in a position to form a government on its own and Sonia Gandhi would have a problem winning the support of other parties, Scindia was at his enigmatic best. "Wait till the U.P. elections are over and you will get all your answers", he said: "Things will change."

Things have certainly changed but not in ways that he or anybody else for that matter could have foreseen.

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