Maharajah plays the feudal card to stay in power

"WE WILL re-elect Madhavrao Scindia because he has done so much for the development of our city". This view, repeated by everybody one meets in Gwalior like a mantra, strikes the newcomer as a sick joke.

Today the central Indian city of Gwalior goes to the polls along with 130 other constituencies. There are 17 candidates here, but last time Mr Scindia, now general secretary of the Congress party, won with a majority of 223,000, and no one doubts it will be another "cake walk" for the incumbent today. Two reasons are cited: his contribution to Gwalior's development; and the fact that he is the local Maharajah.

In theory that should be ex-Maharajah, for princely titles were abolished at Independence. But in Gwalior there is no "ex" about it. The captions to the portrait of the chubby, 55-year-old in the palace museum describe him as Maharajah, in full as "Shrimant Maharajah Madhav Rao Scindia". In the city's main square, his supporters, who packed the place for his final campaign rally on Thursday, hailed him as the good king of Gwalior.

Yet, apart from it's princely bits - the vast Italianate palace, and the fort on its huge flat escarpment 300ft above the town - Gwalior seems a terrible place. From the trishaw drivers mobbing one like wasps at the station to the stick-thin, starving beggars, from the piles of rubbish and excrement defacing patches of greenery to the clouds of choking black smoke spewed by the stretch tuk-tuks that serve as taxis, Gwalior comes a long way down the list of Indian cities.

The palace was built in the 1870s to the design of a British architect, rushed up in three years to be ready for inspection by the Prince of Wales, and it is a great, frail wedding cake of a thing. Next door, in the old palace guesthouse, now a hotel, European visitors enjoy the lawns and herbaceous borders. Nearby lie the flashy concrete villas of favoured retainers; in their shadow a tiny old woman in rags gathers twigs for fuel.

But the king of Gwalior is clearly doing something right because if he wins today it will be the fifth time Gwalior has sent him to Delhi. Despite his pedigree, Mr Scindia is a veteran politician. He was first elected in 1971 as the BJP (Hindu Nationalist) candidate for the neighbouring constituency of Guna. Not coincidentally, Guna is also part of his ancestral domain, and is now represented for the BJP by his mother, Vijaya Scindia.

In 1985, he had a falling out with the BJP, joined Congress, came to Gwalior and soundly thrashed Atal Vajpayee, now the Hindu Nationalist candidate for Prime Minister. In 1991, he had an argument with the Congress prime minister and left the party, and in 1996, standing in Gwalior as an independent, he was again returned with an imposing majority. Now he is back in the party and standing as the official candidate.

Dynasty and pedigree have something to do with this run of success but not everything. "The feudal background is an advantage," he admitted. "But it's not enough in itself. A lot of ruling families have not succeeded. You have to use the good will as a platform."

Mr Scindia's contribution to Gwalior's development is not at first obvious, but roaming further afield it is apparent. During the Congress years in power he held a series of ministerial posts which he turned to Gwalior's benefit. "When he was railway minister," says his friend, fellow Congress MP and former foreign minister Nataar Singh, "he ensured every new railway line had to pass through Gwalior."

Later, as Minister of Tourism, he gave Gwalior an airport, and built the spanking new Indian Institute of Tourism Management on the city's fringe. As Minister of Human Resource Development he endowed the city with the mysteriously named Institute of Health Management and Communities. He has also induced numerous companies to built factories on the city's outskirts.

This is pork barrel politics pure and simple, but it goes down a storm. Mr Scindia's brand of old fashioned paternalism is most attractive. Every morning he holds an audience at his palace where all may come to tell him their woes. Why, then, can he apparently do nothing about the dreadful condition of the place?

"This is an Indian city," he told me. "You have to accept that development in India moves slowly because it is a democracy." The implication is obvious: if he really was king of Gwalior, things would be transformed overnight.

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