Family reunion spells trouble for India's PM

After 20 years' feuding, a mother and son are campaigning against Rao's government, writes Tim McGirk
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The Independent Online
New Delhi - At the height of the feud between the queen mother of Gwalior and her son, they lived walled off from each other in a colossal palace, which rises above the plains of central India, and never spoke. They inhabited rival political realms, too. She is a Hindu revivalist, while her son, Madhavrao, belonged to the secular Congress party. As the queen mother once remarked witheringly: "I should have let elephants trample on him when he was born."

The rift in the royal house of Gwalior has been one of the most captivating and longest-running sagas in Indian politics. Mother and son traded accusations of stealing family heirlooms. They padlocked doors in their 150-room Jail Vilas palace to keep each other away from the Persian rugs, the Belgian glass baubles and the Louis XVI furniture. Both are MPs; neither the son nor the mother lost a chance in parliament to sling insults at one other.

However, the Gwaliors' dynastic quarrel may finally have ended. The mother and son's reunion, however, is bad news for Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister and Congress party leader, who inadvertently got the two back together again. The royal pair could harm Mr Rao's hopes of a Congress victory in Madhya Pradesh in the upcoming general elections.

The wily Prime Minister had gambled on revenge being a stronger trait among the Scindia warrior dynasty than forgiveness. He gambled wrong. In February, Mr Rao orchestrated a corruption scandal that tarred all of his leading challengers - both among the opposition leaders and inside Congress. Urbane, aristocratic and rich, Mr Scindia was seen by 74-year- old Mr Rao as a rising threat. Mr Scindia, along with several other cabinet ministers, was forced by the premier to resign for allegedly having accepted black money. He was also denied an election ticket.

Instead of glowering in his Gwalior citadel, Mr Scindia chose to fight against Mr Rao's manoeuvrings. He launched a new party, the Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress, on Monday and went on the campaign trail inside his ancestors' Gwalior kingdom, which at its peak encompassed 25,000 square miles. Although India's princes and nawabs were stripped of their titles, land and power after independence, Mr Scindia everywhere is given a maharajah's greeting: people bow and reverentially touch his feet.

The queen mother was gladdened by her son's revolt against Congress. "Mothers have traditionally forgiven errant sons," said the tiny but haughty Raj Mata. Besides, she said, "The Scindia name has been dishonoured [by the premier] and we must fight."

The family feud dated back to 1977 when the then premier, Indira Gandhi, assumed dictatorial powers and jailed the Raj Mata along with hundreds of other politicians and journalists. The queen mother's son fled to Nepal while his mother suffered in a cell. When she was released in 1980, the Raj Mata vowed to contest Mrs Gandhi's parliamentary seat. As one family friend explained: "Madhavrao knew that Mrs Gandhi was very vindictive. She could have made a lot of trouble for the Scindias, confiscating their wealth and land and putting them all back in jail."

To the queen mother's shame and dismay, her son joined the Congress party. He befriended Indira Gandhi even though she had tried to destroy his mother. It was around then that the Raj Mata said she wished her son had been trampled at birth by elephants.

Mr Scindia's mother is a leader in the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, and the BJP has now withdrawn its candidate for the Gwalior seat. Many of the state's Congress party leaders have snubbed the Prime Minister and are also pledging support for Mr Scindia. In Gwalior, the Congress party headquarters is virtually deserted, according to newspaper reports.

With general elections beginning on 27 April (2 and 7 May are also polling days), the Congress party's chances of winning a majority in parliament are looking dimmer. Not only is Mr Rao bound to lose the key state of Madhya Pradesh with the Gwalior royals fighting against him, but Congress strategists privately admit that the party is likely to suffer defeat in the Ganges plains of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as well as in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.