Nepali Times Asian Paints
State Of The State
A saffron lady in white


Nations need friends abroad to serve their national interests. The more highly placed such friends, the better. A Ryutaro Hashimoto in Japan, or an Edmund Hillary in New Zealand can do more for Nepal and Nepalis than a flurry of visits by high-level dignitaries, or a rustle of self-important diplomats scurrying around.

Vijayaraje Scindia, queen mother of the former Indian princely state of Gwalior, was one such friend. She died on 25 January at the age of 82. She was the highest placed and most influential friend of Nepal in the hierarchy of India's ruling coalition. The influence she had in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be gauged from the fact that Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee delayed his visit to earthquake-hit Gujarat by a day in order to attend her funeral in Gwalior. After all, his party owed its prominence to liberal funding from this benevolent lady.

Vijayaraje Scindia was born Lekha Divyeshwari to Thakur Mahendra Singh and his Rana wife. But she was brought up by her grandparents Khadga Shumsher and Dhankumari Devi at the Nepal Palace in Sagar when her mother died just nine days after her birth. Agonising over a crisis of identity during her childhood, Vijayaraje Scindia later wrote in her autobiography: "Since children customarily took on the citizenship of their fathers, I was unarguably Indian: a cuckoo in the Nepali the normal confusion of growing up, was added the difficulty of reconciling the pride of my Nepali connection with the same of being born an Indian."

Rajmata gave a continuity to her Nepali link when her son, Madhavrao Scindia, married a Rana girl from Nepal in 1966 and her daughter Usharaje was married to Pashupati Shumsher Rana in 1967. Though a Thakur by birth and a Maratha by marriage, Vijayaraje took pride in the fact that she could trace her roots to the only independent Hindu kingdom in the world.

When India gained independence, it was natural for the likes of the dowager maharani of Gwalior to stray into politics. But she gained prominence during the Emergency when Indira Gandhi made her Prisoner No 2265 at the dreaded Tihar Jail in New Delhi. There she had more royal company, in a cell next to her was Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, reputed to have been one of the most beautiful women in the world much before India made storming international beauty pageants a matter of dull routine.

Once out of jail, Vijayaraje Scindia played a crucial role in funding the electoral adventures of the rag-tag band of persecuted politicians who had come together under the banner of the Janata Party to fight Indira Gandhi and her Congress. The triumphant Janata Party government of 1977 had her favourite politician, Vajpayee, as its foreign minister. The much-touted Janata government's tilt towards Nepal wasn't due to Chandra Shekhar's influence alone. It owed a lot to Vijayaraje Scindia. Even though she wasn't in the best of terms with her son Madhavrao Scindia, she appreciated the fact that Nepal had offered shelter to her children, and her son-in-law had played a role in her release on parole from the dreaded confines of Tihar.

An indefatigable fighter, Vijayaraje Scindia kept her faith even when her son Madhavrao made his peace with the Gandhi family. In the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination by her own bodyguards and the anti-Sikh riots that followed in 1984, the Bharatiya Janata Party was all but wiped out from the electoral scene. It appeared as if the Nike-clad, Ray Ban-sporting bright guys of the Rajiv Gandhi brigade would succeed where Sanjay Gandhi had failed earlier, and drive the saffron-saints of Hindutva politics into oblivion. But they hadn't reckoned with the staying power of one particular lady of Nepali Rana extraction.

Contemplating those days in the political wilderness, Vijayaraje Scindia was later to write: "The mist clears. The flames in the butter-lamps become brighter. The idols gleam. I get up from the puja feeling cleansed of doubts and uncertainties and ready for the day, knowing that outside tearful widows and half-alive children wait. True, I may not ever be able to do anything for them. But that does not mean I must not go on trying." She kept on trying to improve the lot of the impoverished in Gwalior with noblesse oblige. Whatever be the circumstance, this tough granddaughter of Khadga Shumsher never gave up hope, never stopped fighting.

Many liberals in Nepal may have found it a little difficult to swallow Vijayaraje Scindia's Hindutva brand of politics. But that does not detract from recognising her contributions in forwarding Nepal's national interests in India.

Nepalis shed copious tears when Princess Diana died in a car crash during an escapade with her paramour. Miss Nepal wannabes still swear by her name when asked about role models. Vijayaraje Scindia may have been closer home, and closely related to Nepal, but her passing away hardly got a mention in the Nepali press. A perfunctory condolence message for Rani Usharaje Rana, in the form of an advertisement, was inserted in Kantipur by the employees of Nepal Gas Industries.

We Nepalis are more adept at antagonising our friends. Waving black flags at George Fernandes and chanting slogans against Chandra Shekhar come more naturally to us. We do not make an attempt to understand that having friends in foreign countries is cheaper than hiring lobbyists, and often the friends are far more effective (and cheaper). This dedicated lady with nerves of steel was one of the symbols of resistance to Indira Gandhi's dreaded dictatorship under Emergency. Later, she played an important role in transforming an opposition party of the fringe into India's ruling party. Vijayaraje Scindia is no more, but her memory will continue to remind us of an old maxim: when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)