India's ex-royalty still draws crowds - and votes

To most Indians, Madhavrao Scindia, member of Parliament and railways minister, is just another politician. But to Meera Shivahari, he is the maharajah.

Last week Mr. Scindia, whose family ruled this Indian city for more than 100 years, married his daughter to the son of the former maharajah of Kashmir. Mrs. Shivahari, a 35-year-old mother of two, came from her village 30 miles away to watch Scindia, dressed in gold and jewels, preside over the lavish ceremony.

``I voted for him,'' the woman said. ``I still consider him my king.''

The Gwalior royal wedding, attended by tens of thousands of people, was a national event. The festivities, which reportedly cost $4 million, stirred bitter controversy as India has been grappling with economic hard times and its worst drought in years.

But the marriage also captivated the country which, though a modernizing third-world force and the world's largest democracy, is still influenced by feudal traditions and enthralled by royal roots.

``This is an occasion to relive our glorious past,'' said Narinder Singh, another former maharajah, diamonds glistening on the buttons of his knee-length coat.

At one time, more than 600 maharajahs ruled one-third of India, commanding god-like awe among subjects. The Indian princes helped Britain prop up its empire, and even when their political privileges were curtailed in the mid-19th century, they remained a pampered elite.

In 1947, the Indian government took over the kingdoms upon attaining independence from Britain. The leaders kept their titles and generous government pensions until they were abolished in 1972. Many maharajahs were forced to turn their palaces into hotels, sell off property, and even take regular jobs.

``Times have changed. There is no nobility now,'' said Sardar Yadav, once a senior nobleman at the court of Gwalior, located 200 miles south of New Delhi. ``The royalty is only for social functions.''

And yet pedigree and hierarchy still play a key role in post-independence India and often determine marriages, jobs, schooling, and political fortunes.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has built an image as a modern leader intent on taking India into the 20th century with the help of high-tech. But after his mother's assassination in 1984, his claim to power came as heir to a dynasty that has long dominated Indian politics.

Although many middle-class Indians consider the royalty a whimsical reminder of the past, the maharajahs still carry clout in tradition-bound rural India where 70 percent of the country's nearly 800 million people live. Many maharajahs and their noblemen continue to hold large properties and exert considerable influence over local economies and residents.

A princely past also has been a ticket to political power for many former kings. Ex-maharajahs hardly ever lose elections. Karan Singh of Kashmir, the groom's father and a former minister, earned a populist reputation as the only maharajah to voluntarily surrender his pension.

Scindia, as one of Mr. Gandhi's new breed of politicians, is overseeing a massive computerization of the railroad system. Scindia also denounced his royal connections. Yet, observers say, he remains an ambitious aristocrat whose political base is built on his princely heritage.

``India is still overshadowed by its history. There is an acceptance of dynasty from the central government down to the village,'' says Khushwant Singh, a New Delhi journalist and social commentator. ``The village headman's son succeeds him. A judge's son becomes the judge. And the prime minister's son or daughter is expected to be the successor too.''

Attitudes are slowly shifting. As a regional power with larger ambitions, India can ill-afford ostentation and rigid institutions of the past, social observers say.

Political critics thundered that the marriage extravaganza was out of place, especially for a government minister, as drought-hit farmers throughout the country struggle to find food and water.

They charged that hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to repave roads and decorate the town and palace.

Stung by the criticism, Scindia, who had sent out 20,000 VIP invitations, issued a mass invitation to the people of Gwalior and canceled plans for a dinner because of the drought. However, Gandhi and many other officials stayed away.

In Gwalior, murmurs of dissent were drowned out as enthusiastic crowds thronged the marriage of Vikram Singh, an American-educated business graduate and avid polo player, and Chitrangada Scindia, schooled in the fine arts.

For many it was a time to escape the rigors of Indian village life as the bejeweled groom arrived in a silver coach to meet the bride, dressed in a golden sari, red veil, and diamonds, under a silk canopy.

``Despite all our troubles,'' said Nirmala Palherkar, a teacher, ``we have come to see the marriage of our princess.''

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