It was in 1960 that I made my official entry into politics. The year before when Jai and I had gone to Bombay to see Ma, we had heard our friends talk enthusiastically about a new party called the Swatantra (“Independent”) Party. Now, at last, or so people were saying, there was some hope of effective opposition to the Congress Party, both in the country and in Parliament.
The leader of the new party was Chakravarty Rajagopalachari, the acknowledged elder statesman of India, who had been one of Mahatma Gandhi’s close associates during the long struggle for Independence and had subsequently been the overwhelming choice to succeed Lord Mountbatten as Governor-General of India. He had broken with the Congress Party the year before, because he felt that Prime Minister Nehru’s acceptance of socialist doctrine was quite out of keeping with the needs of Indians.
Specifically the rift between Rajaji, as he was respectfully called, and the Congress Party came over the issue of cooperative farming. The Congress high command were trying to thrust the idea of cooperative farms on India’s villagers.
Rajaji thought it was wrong in a country so rooted in the idea and tradition of ancestral property, among people whose greatest security lay in owning land, however small, that they knew to be theirs, which they had inherited from their fathers and would bequeath to their sons.
Rajaji’s differences with the Congress Party were much more varied than that, but perhaps that one was the deepest and most inclusive.
Rajaji soon found supporters and followers for his new party, many of them former members of the Congress Party who were now disillusioned by the behaviour of the party once it gained power. There were also many like myself, who had never joined a political party before, and even if they had wanted to, couldn’t have found one that expressed moderate and liberal views. They rejected the muddle-headed socialism of the Congress Party and the even more impractical schemes of the Socialists and they couldn’t subscribe to the extremism of Communists on the left, or the religiously oriented, orthodox Hindu Jana Sangh Party on the right. Rajaji agreed with Gandhi’s view that the best government is the one that interferes least with the lives of its citizens. For all of us, the Swatantra Party and Rajaji’s intelligent realism seemed like an island of sanity in the turbulent political seas around us.
I had first met him when he was Governor-General and had come to Jaipur on an official visit in 1949. He was an exceedingly thin, erect old man, dressed in an impeccably white, crisply starched, handspun cotton dhoti and shirt of his native Madras in south India. The eminence of his position and the pomp with which he was surrounded altered his habits not one bit. Like a true Tamil Brahmin he was a strict vegetarian, never drank alcohol or smoked, went to bed early and rose before daybreak. Yet, dry and tiresomely pious as this sounds, this regime didn’t interfere at all with the enjoyment he found in good talk and informed argument, nor does it give any idea of his charm, his wit, his love of south Indian classical music, his wisdom tempered with humour.
He had a high bald head, a network of laughter lines around sharply observant eyes and a wide, ironic smile, and he expressed himself in perfectly phrased, elegant English. He was an intellectual and a fine scholar, and he could capture the imagination of a crowd at a political meeting. He went to jail for acts of civil disobedience to promote a national cause, yet he spent his spare time making brilliant translations of the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, from Sanskrit into Tamil and into English. He held the country’s most prestigious post as Governor-General and was acclaimed by all parties as the best man for the position. During his visit, he wanted Jai to be vigilant because the new government of India might not appreciate the need to preserve for posterity the many historically important buildings Jai had handed over to them. He included the palaces, the temples of the Jaipur rulers in Benares and Mathura, and the observatory in Delhi, but he expressed special concern for Amber, the wonderful old capital of Jaipur. How right he turned out to be.
It was many years before I saw him again and in the meantime the whole country and our personal lives with it had changed beyond all imagining.
His Swatantra Party attracted both Jai and me when we first heard about it. At last someone seemed to be saying that there must be an effective but reasonable opposition to the Congress Party if democracy were to survive in India – and was doing something about creating such an opposition.
At last someone was speaking up against excessive state control and the disastrous results of the Congress Party’s economic policies and asking for a practical approach that wasn’t shackled to visionary dogma. However, Jai still felt disinclined to enter party politics. He had always believed that in his position, he should remain neutral. I had accepted the idea that I should do the same. But now for the first time, I was tempted to join an opposition party. It was so clear that all around us our people were discontented and viewed the future with pessimism. In fact, the only section of society which seemed satisﬁed were those people closely associated with the Congress Party. There was little hope of remedying this situation unless some constructive action was taken to oppose the Congress Party in Parliament and in the state assemblies.
It was in this pent-up mood and with the growing awareness of the dissatisfaction of the people around us that as time passed, I began to toy with the idea of joining the Swatantra Party. My intention was to canvass for its candidates, and perhaps raise funds and hold fétes, just as I had seen British friends do in support of their political parties. I never dreamed of standing for Parliament or making politics a career. I had no personal ambitions and in spite of my disappointment with the Government, felt no animosity to any individual.
I thought that the princes should find capable candidates, back them and help in their election campaigns to parliament and to the state legislative assemblies. In this way, I imagined, there would be a sensible, non-extremist opposition to the Congress Party.
With these ideas in mind and a wish to do something for the country, I finally took the step of joining the Swatantra. As it turned out, my timing made it rather embarrassing.
The previous summer it had been announced that the Queen of England was going to visit India and Jai asked her if she would do him the honour of visiting Jaipur. She replied that she would be pleased to accept if he could arrange the visit. He immediately got in touch with Sir Michael Adeane, the Queen’s Private Secretary and also with Mrs Vijayalaxmi Pandit, the Indian High Commissioner in London. In due course, a visit to Jaipur was added to the Queen’s itinerary. It was settled that she would come to Jaipur on January 23, 1961, two days after her arrival in New Delhi, and that her visit would be as informal as possible, allowing her time to rest before carrying on with her tour of India and Pakistan.
Such visits have to be worked out in great detail, and officials from Buckingham Palace, the British Foreign Office, and the Protocol Division in Delhi were soon busy ensuring that all the arrangements were in order and to everybody’s satisfaction, and that substitute arrangements were understood in case anything unforeseen should require a change in plans. However, when, after a few weeks it was announced that the Queen was going to a tiger shoot at Sawai Madhopur, the Anti-Blood-Sports Group in England started to protest and a little later the Indian newspapers picked up the cry. This worried Pandit Nehru and he wrote to Jai asking him to be sure that no live bait was to be used on this shoot.
At the same time, some of the Indian papers had published a programme of the Queen’s visit and had stated that Jai was planning to hold a durbar in the Queen’s honour. Again Pandit Nehru wrote to Jai, who replied that he was most upset that the Prime Minister should think him so irresponsible. It was perfectly clear from the wording of the invitation to the reception in honour of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh that there was no intention of holding a durbar. Jai was then asked why the guests had been asked to come in full dress and wearing their turbans. Jai replied that this was the traditional costume in jaipur, and that the nobles always came to any ceremonial occasion dressed in their achkans and turbans and carrying swords. In fact, they had done so just before the Queen was to come to Jaipur, when Jai’s son Pat got engaged to my sister Ila’s daughter and they all attended the betrothal ceremony at the City Palace.
On the morning of the betrothal ceremony I woke up and asked Jai if I could join the Swatantra Party. He was still rather sleepy, but he did say “Yes,” and so as I left Rajmahal to go out for my morning ride, I asked the ADC on duty to find out who was the local secretary of the Swatantra Party and to ask him to come and have breakfast with me.
When I returned from my ride, the man was waiting and I inquired how one set about joining a political party. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it and merely replied that it was quite simple; one paid a subscription and filled in a form. I did both on the spot.
Pat was sitting at the table with me and also filled up the form to join the Swatantra Party. It was all over in a minute and then Pat and I went on to the City Palace for the engagement ceremony.
Among the guests staying with us at the time was an old friend, the granddaughter of one of India’s greatest freedom fighters, and as we were watching the betrothal l happened to mention to her that I had just come from joining the Swatantra Party. She stared at me, aghast, and said, “You must he mad.”
“Why?” I asked. “You sympathise with the Swatantra too.“
“But the Queen is about to come and visit Jai!”
“What’s that got to do with it?” I asked.
“Well, if you’ve just gone and joined an opposition party it will look like a deliberate insult to the Government, and you’re bound to get an awful lot of comment and criticism about it. After all, the Queen is the guest of the Government of India.”
“I can’t believe my joining the Swatantra party would be much of a scoop for the press,” I said, beginning to feel more uncertain of my ground. “Do keep quiet about it until after the visit.”
When we got back to Rajmahal, I asked the ADC if there had been any calls.
“Yes, indeed,” he replied. “The press have been ringing up all day to ask if you’ve joined the Swatantra Party.”
Luckily he didn’t know l had, and so he had been strenuously denying the rumour. I told him to keep on. In fact, even Jai didn’t know that I had acted so quickly, for, what with Pat’s betrothal and all the ceremonies, he had been very busy that morning, and we didn’t see each other until lunchtime. He was rather surprised by my hastiness and felt l should have discussed with him more thoroughly an action so potentially explosive. He entirely agreed that we should keep the news very quiet indeed, and it was not until a week or so after the Queen had left Jaipur that it became public knowledge.
I wrote to Rajaji, telling him that l had joined his party and received a reply thanking me and saying I was a brave lady. This rather puzzled me at first, for I saw nothing brave in joining an opposition political party in a democratic country. But I soon began to understand. In February the press carried the news that I had joined the Swatantra Party, and I was quite unprepared for either the public interest it aroused or the reaction of the Congress Party leaders in the Rajasthan. The same Chief Minister who had asked me to join the Congress four years earlier angrily threatened in the State Assembly that princes who engaged in polities would forfeit their privy purses. He was somewhat sobered by the question of an independent member asking whether that principle would apply equally to former rulers who joined the Congress.
Then in April the President of the Swatantra Party in Rajasthan, the Maharawal of Dungarpur invited Rajaji to come to Jaipur, and I learned to my consternation that I was expected to speak at a public meeting which he was going to address.
Even though I had abandoned purdah some time earlier and drove my own open sports car wherever I wanted, my formal appearances in public had been very rare. It would be quite a revolution in the history of Jaipur for a maharani to speak on a public platform, As always, I rushed to Jai to ask his advice. He pointed out that as I had joined the party, it was my duty to work for it, and he gave me his permission to appear at the public meeting. I had been hoping secretly that he would provide me with some sort of excuse so that I would avoid the whole thing. As it was, a large number of the people of Jaipur as well as my own family were uneasy about my doing any political work. Many simply didn’t like the idea of their Maharani entering public life, while my own people were afraid that my action might expose our family to political retaliation of some sort.
However, there seemed to be no help for it. I couldn’t think of any way to extricate myself from the situation, and now I had to accept the idea that I must appear at the huge open-air meeting that had been planned. My only duty was to introduce Rajaji. I had no more than four lines to say and even those were written down for me. Still, I was overwhelmed with nervousness and had a dry mouth and parched lips for days before. At last it came, the day I had hoped would never arrive and l shall never forget my string of anxieties. Would I stutter or forget my lines? Would I lose the piece of paper and be tongue-tied? Would the people be sympathetic? Would there, perhaps, be no gathering at all? One of the nobles and his wile accompanied me to the meeting, and when I confessed my fears that no one would bother to come, they burst out laughing and reminded me that Jaipur was a place where, if two monkeys danced, people would gather around them. I need hardly say that I didn’t find this remark very reassuring.
As we approached the grounds, we found that a huge crowd had assembled and this made me even more terrified. But once my own small part in the performance was over, I enjoyed my first political meeting. Once Rajaji started talking, l forgot my worries and was enthralled by the clarity and logic and sense of his speech; I had never before heard anyone criticise the Government openly and was pleased to see that the enormous crowd was equally impressed. It wasn’t until later that I wondered at my own surprise. After all, isn’t it one of the fundamental rights of people in a democracy to criticise their government as openly as they wish? Soon afterwards, Rajaji wrote an article in the party newspaper, which he edited, comparing me to the Rani of Jhansi. l found the comparison rather far-fetched. The Rani of Jhansi, a great Indian heroine, led her troops to battle against the British in the cause of freedom. All I had done was join a political party in a free and democratic country. It was only later that I discovered that to belong to an opposition party was not without its risks.
Excerpted with permission from A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi, Rupa Publications.