Politics would seem like the natural occupation for a member of a royal family. After the Indian state became independent and the 500-odd royal princely states were abolished the royals had a need to adopt an honourable profession that would be able to keep them occupied and also productive. To sustain the strong ties with the masses where the reverence and respectability due to them would be allowed a defining relation was called for in the changeover from monarchy to democracy. And the people of the former kingdoms did go along and brought back their nominal rajas and maharanis to the seat of power so that even till today many in the royal tradition are well ensconced in politics and leadership.
Post-Independence Indian democracy is proof of the fact that those royals who chose to enter the political arena were quite successful whereas scores of others in the tradition who lost touch with their earlier work of managing their kingdoms eventually drifted away into oblivion. Many however did well in business and other professions, mostly popularity based, where mass appeal played a significant role – for instance Saif Ali Khan who is a Bollywood star and is in the lineage of Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, the former Indian cricket captain and Nawab. Though there were ups and downs in the political careers of these royal political leaders they did not largely face any criticism and neither were they censored by their electorate mainly because of the high and distinguished family background they enjoyed.
To name a few of the royal political leaders who did not have to bifurcate their vision of royalty and the needs of catering to a new form of democratic rulership, Maharani Gayatri Devi with her Swatantra Party had a phenomenal start and challenged the Congress hegemony before dwindling out in the latter years. In the present time are Dushyant Singh, the son of Vasundhara Raje, the only woman chief minister of Rajasthan belonging to the BJP; Jyotiraditya Scindia, son of former veteran Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior state; Ilyaraj Singh of the Congress from the Kotah state; Digvijay Singh, a veteran Congress leader who served two terms as Madhya Pradesh chief minister; Chandresh Kumari Katoch of the Jodhpur state who was minister of culture in the former UPA government; first woman chief minister of Rajasthan Vasundhara Raje from the Scindia clan; Diya Kumari of the BJP, who is the granddaughter of Gayatri Devi; BJP’s Mala Rajya Laxmi from the Tehri royal family, who became Uttarakhand’s first lady MP after the state was created; HH Raja Rao Bahadur Priyavrat Singh from the royal family of Khilchipur, twice Congress MP from the same constituency; and Kunwar Vikram Singh of the Chhatarpur royal family, elected three times MLA on Congress and SP ticket.
Rajasthan consisting of 18 royal families has fielded more than half of them in state and national elections. According to political scientist William L Richter the highest number of political candidates are from Orissa, Chattisgarh region (formerly part of Madhya Pradesh), Rajasthan and Gujarat. In Orissa the royalty is closely linked to religion too as is seen by their esteemed presence at the annual gigantic Ratha Yatra festival at Puri. Disappointment with the present day governments could be one of the reasons why these royal political leaders are so popular with the masses in their states and territories, cites Richter.
And here is the point – the developments after the nomination of Manipur’s own titular king Leishemba Sanajaoba as the BJP’s candidate and his subsequent election just a couple of days back to the state’s lone Rajya Sabha seat has caused a furore in some local circles, something which has put a question mark over how the nominal king is going to overcome the locally sensitive issue and also synchronize, if at all he is able to, the widening gap between the democratic portfolio and the one he holds by dint of his being a living example of Manipur’s erstwhile monarchy. Its early to say how he will be able to placate some of the sentiments going against him but one can be sure that his attempt to become an active politician is not going to be as easy as his garnering of votes in the just concluded elections, which itself was full of drama till the last moment.
To cite a few examples of those protesting the titular king’s becoming a political leader, Vikram Nongmaithem of the Manipur University says that Sanajaoba cannot be the king and a commoner at the same time. Though his kingship is titular he is an important symbol of the rich history and civilisation of the state, he says adding that already the emotions of the majority of the people are hurt because of the nature of the agreement that led to the integration with the mainland country in 1949. He points out that scholars and historians remarked that the then king was coerced into signing the merger act and questions why a sovereign state became a Part C state. He also quotes politician Laishram Achou who called the AFSPA a ‘lawless law’ in the parliament, alluding to the merger agreement which is supposed to be the genesis of armed resurrection in the state according to him.
Repeating the popular refrain that the titular king should abdicate if he wants to remain a Rajya Sabha member, Vikram gives the example of Edward VIII who abdicated in favour of his younger brother George VI to marry a divorced woman which the Church of England didn’t approve of. Coming down heavily on the titular king, Vikram criticises him for not having understanding of the meaning of ‘For king and country’ and ‘Of honour and glory’.
Calling kingship cultural symbolism and national identity, the students of Manipur Students Association Delhi say that the institution serves as a bond of mutual relationship between the hills and valley. The primary critique is not against Sanajaoba but his attempt to delegitimise the erstwhile political sovereignty, they say. The cultural sovereignty he holds today is a necessary embodiment of the earlier political sovereignty, according to them. The fate of kingship and that of the people is intertwined in Manipur, the students say observing that for the millions of people their loyalty is not to the palace but to the political life challenging, what they call, Indian colonising forces.
Meanwhile come what may titular king Leishemba Sanajaoba has made the mark in an open forum and he is not stepping down either from his Rajya Sabha seat and also his kingship. He has already promised to start working immediately on plans he has had in his mind for long. In becoming part of Manipur’s political circles he has etched his name in the contemporary history of Manipur. It remains to be seen how the blue blooded newcomer weathers the storm of Manipur politics and reigns over local sentiments that surge time and again.