If the country’s first deputy prime minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, is credited with the merger of over 500 princely states into the Indian union soon after independence, the present-day BJP government can well win the distinction of just the opposite. This is so despite its love for Sardar Patel because the party and its government has been bringing quite a few surviving or present-day scions of the erstwhile royalties to its ranks and empowering them through in another way than what once used to be the case.
The latest in this rather swelling horde of the former royals who queue up and often make it to the BJP is RPN Singh. The 57-year-old former Congress minister at the Centre has his descent from the former principality of Padrauna in eastern Uttar Pradesh and its earlier rulers. He joined the BJP on Tuesday, January 25, in New Delhi amid fierce electioneering in his home state. He is likely to jump into the fray, or else can well try to become more consequential in some other way since his new party while making a bid to retain power in UP also holds the reins at the Centre.
But RPN is not lone heir from a royal house to have made it to the BJP. Before him his peer and another former minister in Dr Manmohan Singh’s team Jitin Prasada had followed a similar course. Last year Prasada signed off from Congress and joined the BJP. Soon he was sworn in as a minister in Uttar Pradesh. Like Singh Prasada too is said to have royal ancestry since his grandmother belonged to Kapurthala in Punjab.
Moreover, the case of Jyotiraditya Scindia from the former royal house of Gwalior is too stark to escape attention. He left Congress and joined the BJP in 2020 to eventually become a central minister. Before him, one of his aunts who have already been with the BJP took oath as a minister in Madhya Pradesh. Jyotiraditya’s another aunt is a former BJP chief minister of Rajasthan.
Another royal who did not exactly join the BJP but forged an electoral alliance with the party in Punjab is Captain Amarinder Singh. Last year, Captain Singh, who belongs to the former State of Patiala and headed the previous Congress government in Punjab, fell out with the party. He resigned from the post of chief minister, met Union home minister Amit Shah, announced the formation of his own political outfit in Punjab and entered into a seat-sharing arrangement with the BJP for the February 20 elections in the state.
The list of former royals cosying up to the BJP directly or in a roundabout way does not end here. Haider Ali Khan, the grandson of Begum Noor Bano from former princely State of Rampur in UP, is reported to have preferred the ticket of a BJP ally and NDA constituent Apna [Sonelal] from Suar in Rampur over that of the Congress for the same assembly constituency.
On January 13 Congress had released its first list of 125 candidates for UP assembly polls where both Haider and his father Kazim Ali Khan’s names figured as party’s candidates from Suar and Rampur City. Yet about a week later Haider was seen with Apna Dal (S) leader and central minister Anupriya Patel in pictures published by Delhi newspapers with the announcement of his candidature from Suar on Apna Dal (S) ticket.
So all these gentlemen have been leaving Congress to either join the BJP or seek proximity with the ruling party by latching on to the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP. Though Congress has of late been a bit down if not completely out quite a few former scions from the feudatories of yore have been with the party that has for long served to offset the loss of their privileges in the past. It is so despite the fact that since Sardar Patel’s time the royals of the past have often been gravitating towards rightwing parties like Swatantra Party and Jana Sangh.
For instance the Raja of Tehri Garhwal late Manabendra Shah and Jyotriaditya’s grandmother late Vijayaraje Scindia have for long been with the Jana Sangh and BJP. Besides this, the Swatantra Party was formed in 1959 with support of princes, jagirdars and landlords since they could not reconcile to the loss of their fiefdoms, lands, social and economic clout or status following the annexation of their large estates and other assets with India after 1947.
In return the princes were given a grant in the form of privy purses by the government. This too was abolished through a constitutional amendment in 1971. The turn of the wheels of times, indeed, transformed them virtually into commoners. Yet, their long reigns through the length and breadth of the country left their strong stamp on politics. So much so that the famed American Indologist Stanley Wolpert pointed out in one of his books that the term for politics in Hindi or Rajniti fuses together words like Raja and Niti, signifying its dynastic character that has found expression in modern times through decades of Nehru-Gandhi rule.
Yet, after independence the Nehru-Gandhis have been in power for less than half the time or for 32 years with a few breaks out of a total of 70 years of democratic rule that began in 1952 with the formation of the first Lok Sabha. Besides Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Congress governments have also been presided over in the past also by Lal Bahdur Shastri, Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh. And together the tenure of the three has covered a period of about 17 years. It is these spells of Congress rule at the Centre which is often dubbed as “dynastic or a single family’s rule” by its rivals and more so the BJP with some exaggerations like “60 years of dynastic rule”.
What pales before these claims is the silent continuation of some of the former princes in legislatures and governments both in States and at the Centre. This has uninterruptedly been perpetuated both under Congress and BJP governments. And it is so despite the formal accession of princely states to the Indian Union after independence without any prospects of power sharing by the princes except through democratic means. This amounts to saying that the parties should ideally show no consideration to the royal ancestry while assigning key positions.
Obviously, this is not the case anymore as quite a few former princes and princesses are not only manning different parties and governments formed by them at myriad levels but also crossing across the main political parties of the country effortlessly as per their needs, choice and convenience. At another level this also justifies and accentuates the clout of persons from influential and moneyed families in politics with possibly lesser commitment to the public good than their other interests which Sardar Patel and his contemporaries must have thought to be put to end after independence.
— The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi and NCR. He tweets @abidshahjourno