Raja Sir Tanjore Madhava Rao is virtually unknown today. This is a tragedy, for Rao was universally considered the foremost Indian statesman of the nineteenth century. His domain was what the British
termed the Native States or what Indians pointedly described as Indian India. Between 1858 and 1883, Rao had the unique distinction of serving successively as Dewan (or Prime Minister) to the Maharajas
of Travancore, Indore, and Baroda. In each instance, he was celebrated for displaying excellence in administration. On his watch, Travancore and Baroda in particular came to be seen as “model states”, whose progress demonstrated that Indians were capable of governing themselves well.
Hints on the Art and Science of Government is the harvest of Rao’s exceptional career. It came into being when Rao was tasked with preparing Sayaji Rao Gaekwad to become Maharaja of Baroda. Its
contents are the lectures Rao delivered to the young prince. The lectures summarise the principles, gleaned from long experience, to which Rao credited his practical successes.
These principles combine the classical Indian ideal of raj dharma, which enjoins rulers to govern dutifully, with the modern European ideal, familiar to readers of Charles de Montesquieu, that rulers must eschew arbitrariness. Put simply, Rao advised rulers to be tough on themselves but gentle toward citizens. Hints commends itself to posterity for two reasons. First, because of what it is – the most important example there is of how the earliest generation of English-educated Indian elites tried to revise ancient ideals of statesmanship for the modern age. Second, because of what it teaches – it promises rulers who govern liberally and prudently, happiness for their people and fame for themselves. In this respect, Hints is not only timeless but also timely.
Madhava Rao was born in 1828 in Kumbakonam, a prominent town in Madras Presidency’s Tanjore district, to a family long associated with public administration. His uncle, Venkat Rao, served as Dewan of Travancore from 1821-30, before being drafted to the Mysore Commission as Head Sheristadar (manager). His father, Ranga Rao, served as Deputy Sheristadar at the Madras Board of Revenue before also being recruited to Travancore, where he served as Acting Dewan between 1837-38 prior to his untimely death in 1839.
In 1841 Rao entered the newly-established Madras High School, the precursor to Presidency College. Under the tutelage of its legendary Principal, Eyre Burton Powell, Rao received a decidedly modern and liberal education: Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexander Pope, and Edward Gibbon were studied alongside calculus, trigonometry, algebra, astronomy, optics, and electricity. Powell prized Rao, deeming his abilities “far more extensive than those of most native young men”, his proficiency in mathematics in particular being such as “would secure him an honourable position even in the University of Cambridge.”
This was no minor compliment for Powell was a Wrangler – one of those demi-gods that had attained a First Class in Mathematics at Cambridge. Rao, in turn, revered his teacher. His successes, he would always insist, were “ultimately traceable to the influence of Mr. Powell’s teaching”, which had led “demonstrated truths” to take a “firm hold of our minds”.
After graduating in 1846 Rao entered the Madras Accountant General’s office, earning 20 rupees every month. He was not to remain a “Junior Assistant” for long. Later that year Uttaram Tirunal ascended to the throne in Travancore. The Resident (the Government of India’s local representative), William Cullen, persuaded the new ruler to provide his nephews and heirs – Ayilyam Tirunal and Vishakham Tirunal – with a “good English education”.
When Cullen wrote to Madras for recommendations, the University Board promptly offered up Rao’s name. After some anxious deliberation over moving to Travancore, where his father had been the target of nativist ire, Rao accepted Uttaram’s invitation in July 1849, persuaded partly by the salary of 200 rupees per month and partly by John Norton, a prominent lawyer, who pointed out to Rao that he “might become the benefactor of millions of his countrymen” if he “excited in the breasts of those young princes a thirst for knowledge and a love of virtue”.
For the next four years Rao “threw himself heart and soul into the task” before him. Accolades soon followed, the most notable being the compliments of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, who observed that “the proficiency of the young Princes in the English language and in general knowledge, under the tuition of Madava Row, is highly creditable both to the pupils and the teacher”.
This record led Uttaram to appoint Rao Deputy Peishkar (magistrate) in April 1853 with responsibilities for Chowkey (customs) and Devaswam (religious institutions) as well as his English correspondence. At this time storm clouds began gathering over Travancore. Missionaries from the London-based Christian Missionary Society launched concerted attacks on Cullen and his protégé, the Dewan Krishna Rao, accusing the men of turning a blind eye to violence against their converts. Travancore’s finances, meanwhile, nosedived as smugglers based in British Cochin undermined the State’s profitable monopolies on the vending of tobacco and pepper.
Urged by Madras to intervene, Governor-General James Broun-Ramsay, the Marquess of Dalhousie, pointedly replied that though the 1805 Treaty between Travancore and the East India Company did not permit him to intervene on behalf of the missionaries, annexation could follow if Travancore was unable to pay the tribute due annually to the East India Company.
This warning shook Travancore, especially after Dalhousie annexed Oudh in February 1856. In the midst of the turmoil, Rao seized his chance.
Having been promoted to the position of Dewan Peishkar (divisional magistrate) in 1855, Rao now proposed to Uttaram that the Peishkars be entrusted with a certain number of taluks (administrative regions) each. The proposal was adopted, and Rao was given charge of Southern Travancore, “the very taluks from which complaints to the Madras Government had been most frequent and importunate”. Within mere months Southern Travancore was transformed. A crackdown on corruption trebled revenues. The missionaries, meanwhile, were won over by Rao’s “integrity, energy, and impartiality”.
As Rao’s renown grew, his former student and now key ally, Vishakham, seeded a crucial idea. In a widely noticed essay published in the Madras Athenaeum in October 1856, Vishakham warned that “the only way of saving the State” from the “all-grasping policy of the Paramount power” was to “place its management in the hands of a resolute and vigorous minister”.10 The hope was soon realized. In December 1857, the Dewan Krishna Rao expired and Uttaram promptly chose Rao as the successor. And so, with the Mutiny still smoldering up north, Rao became, at the age of thirty, the Dewan of Travancore on a salary of 2,000 rupees per month.
Excerpted with permission from The Progressive Maharaja: Sir Madhava Rao’s Hints on the Art and Science of Government, edited by Rahul Sagar, HarperCollins.
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