• The Princess has taken on new roles and is getting more involved in politics. In a striking way, most of the blame for the rise in princely political action must be put on how that system works. If the previous rulers had been left alone after they gave up their thrones, only a few of them would have run for office, and most of them would have been forgotten.
• However, they were not left alone. Political parties stepped in and offered the former masters political status in exchange for votes from their former subjects. The Congress party, which recently tried to end all princely privilege, took advantage of this system more than any other group.
• In the same way, events that were meant to get rid of the last perks of being a prince have, in a strange way, given the Princesses a new lease on life in politics. Their privy purses, benefits, and – from their point of view – their honour have drawn them into more political work.
• As they lose the aloofness that has kept many of them out of politics, the Princess may also lose some of the mystery that has been a big part of their support in the past. Only if they can turn traditional resources into political wins while learning new political and organisational skills will the short-term resurgence of the Princess become a long-term feature of Indian politics.
Table of Contents
Perspective of Observers
• Until recently, many people who follow Indian politics thought that when their states joined together in 1948 and 1949, the princess left the political scene. We are told that the Princesses “were given pensions and retired to their made-up world of hunting and other activities.” Since 1956, they have “virtually vanished from the Indian political scene.”
• Other people have noticed that members of former ruling families run for office, but most of them think this is old-fashioned, temporary, and doomed to end. This popular idea that princes are going out of style was changed when many princes did well in the fourth general election, but few people could have predicted that by the late 1970s, the princes would be at the centre of disruptive controversies.
• The issue has made people question the relationship between the prime minister and Parliament, the legitimacy and role of the upper house (Rajya Sabha), the sanctity of treaties, the powers of the President, and the role of the supreme court. Also, it’s the first time in 20 years that independent elections have been held before the maximum of five years allowed by the law. The election, which Prime Minister Indra Gandhi set for the beginning of March 1971, is about a fundamental but not clear-cut problem that the Left calls “socialism versus feudalism” and the Right calls “constitutional democracy versus arbitrary rule.”
• Princes rose to fame like phoenixes in the late 1960s because of two events that are connected:
Their growing involvement in the political process;
The central government’s effort to stop their privy purse payments and other special rights.
• A quick look at both of these events will help understand the upsetting and sometimes funny things that happened in late 1970 and put the 1971 election in its social and political context.
Princely Electoral Behaviour
• Since the first general elections in 1951-52, princes and members of princely families have run for places in parliament and the assembly. In spite of what most people think, their level of participation has slowly grown over the past nearly 20 years. There are many and different reasons for this rise, but the following ones stand out:
First, “traditional” support hasn’t changed as quickly as Nationalist leaders thought it would. In some places, people’s unhappiness with how nationalist rule hasn’t lived up to their hopes has made them long for “the good old days” when princes were in charge.
Second, many former leaders have grown their support by using modern campaign techniques, building political party organisations, and campaigning for popular views on important issues. Donald Rosenthal calls this process “popularisation.” It’s how the political elite who have been pushed out of power choose to stay involved in politics. They do this by joining up with dissident parts of the elite structure that has taken their place in politics, or by going over the heads of the political elite and appealing to groups in society that are only rarely mobilised.
A third reason is the general drop in “aloofness” among princes. At the time of the merger, some of the princesses thought that a job in democratic elections would be a natural next step after their time as princes. Others got involved in politics because local or national political leaders, fellow princes, or voters persuaded them to, or because they wanted to do something about a big problem through politics. People who are younger, less tied to tradition, and less shy are more likely to become princes. Many of these people barely remember autocratic rule, which is another reason why there are more princely candidates and why the people still back them. A quick look at princely behaviour in different parts of the world will show how these different factors work together.
• Political behaviour patterns of princes change from state to state and from region to region. Odisha and the nearby part of Madhya Pradesh called Chhattisgarh have the highest numbers of princely candidates.
• At the time of the merger, princely states in both regions were joined with lands that had been ruled by the British. Since 1952, local Congress leaders in both regions have been working hard to get members of princely families to join the Congress. In Orissa, Gantantra Parisad, a party that was started in 1949 and united with the Swatantra party in 1962, has grown along with this.
• The other two princely regions in Madhya Pradesh, Vindhya Pradesh in the north-east and Madhya Pradesh Bharat/Bhopal in the north-west, have shown unusually low levels of princely electoral action, despite the importance of Rajmata of Gwalior in Madhya Bharat. The Congress has again played a big role in getting people from princely families to run for office. However, the Rajmata of Gwalior, the “Queen mother” of the largest and most prestigious former princely state in Central India, left the Congress on the eve of the 1967 elections and has since been a strong force in the growth of the Jan Sangh in Madhya Pradesh.
• Gujarat also has different regions, with most of the politically active rulers in Saurashtra and Kutch belonging to the Swatantra caste and those in the rest of Gujarat (which was part of Bombay state from 1949 to 1960) belonging to the Congress caste. The Gujarat kshatriya Mahasabha, especially in Saurashtra, has been a big part of getting the former rulers to work together.
• In other places, national and personal factors seem to be more important than regional ones when it comes to explaining princely political action. Almost all of the surviving princely politicians have run for office as Congress candidates or as independents in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur, Maharashtra, Mysore, and Madras.
• In short, past rulers and members of ruling families are getting involved in politics in different ways, but they are doing so more often and, in some places, in ways that are different from region to region. Most princely lawmakers have joined the Congress because it is their party of choice.
• During the years 1951–1970, slightly less than half of the royal family members who ran for office were either Congress members or former Congress members, like Brij Raj Singh of Kota and the late Harishchandra of Jhalawar. However, princely support for Congress has gone down since the 1970s.
Before the 1967 elections, Princess moved to groups that were against the government.
Then, a few more rulers left over the matter of the privy purse; and
Late in 1969, the Congress broke up, and the Princess joined both of the new groups.
• Swatantra, which includes Gantantra Parishad in Orissa, was the second largest party among princely families, but it was only in Orissa, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. The Jan Sangh is getting stronger in Madhya Pradesh and Eastern Rajasthan, but there are still many more Independents than Jan Sangh rulers in the rest of India. Some people have said that the Congress’s attack on the princes after the 1967 elections was caused by the princes’ support for alternative parties. Whether or not this is true, it is clear that the Congress’s attack has caused the princes to lose even more support. At the same time, the congress’s hold on many of the kings has lasted much longer than one might expect given the circumstances. This continued backing from Congress can be traced back to:
Many princesses have a lot of respect for Nehru and his party, the Congress.
Respect for Indira Gandhi was shown by the fact that the princess believed, even as late as 1970, that she was “weak” or “being used by the Young Turks in the Congress,” but not that she was personally “out to get the princess.”
Respect for the power of Congress to stay in place
People were afraid that Indira Gandhi’s death would lead to chaos or communist rule.
Dislike for any other option than Congress,
Real agreement (from one or two princely politicians) with the strategy to get rid of the privy purse, and maybe other things as well.
Privy Purses, Privileges, and Pressure Politics
• Along with the idea that Indian princesses were becoming less important in politics, people thought that they were too tied down by old grudges and split by status issues to ever work together for their own good. But since 1967, this view has also changed. This is because the princesses have been getting together to fight the Congress’s attack on their privileges and privy purses, and so far, they have been successful.
• The privy purses and privileges that the government tried to get rid of in the late 1970s were set up in several different agreements between the central government and the rulers in 1948 and 1949. The Indian Constitution of 1950 made sure that these things could not be taken away. Most of the guarantees were written into the deals that brought about the Union of States. The formulas used to figure out purse amounts were different in each area, but they were usually based on a state’s annual income. In simple words, the price India paid for the peaceful transition from princely to Republican rule was to keep its privy purses and privileges. The architects of integration thought this was a very low price to pay.
• The 284 princesses who got privy purses and their children were to keep them forever, but some purses, like all those worth more than 1 million rupees, were to be cut down when the princesses died. But the idea of keeping these plans in place forever made some people want to change them soon after they were made.
• In the early 1950s, Nehru asked the princesses to cut their payments on their own. There is no proof that any of them did this, but many have used a lot of their money to start charitable trusts and other organisations. Revision ideas came from more than one person. In 1956, the rulers of Bashar and Jhalawar, who later became Congress lawmakers, went to the Home Minister Shastri and asked for a plan of phased reduction instead of the ongoing payments. They were told that their question showed that they didn’t trust the government enough and that there was no reason to break agreements made in good faith.
• The latest attack on the princess by the government was directly caused by the Congress’s loss in the 1967 elections. Even though getting back at the princesses who voted against the Congress in the election may have been a small part of Congress’s thought, the main reasons seem to be more symbolic than substantive.
• In May 1967, at its first meeting after the elections, the Congress working committee passed a broad policy statement that became known as the “ten point programme.” This was done to improve the Congress’s image by taking a more radical ideological stance. One of the 10 points said that princely rights should be taken away, but it didn’t say anything about privy purses. But when the All India Congress Committee met in June, it changed the motion to say that privy purses should also be done away with.
• In response to the AICC resolution, a group of princes in Delhi got together and wrote to all the other princes who get money from the privy purse, asking them not to act alone on the problem. In the weeks that followed, they formed an all-India group called “Rulers of Indian states in Concord for India.” They made public statements defending their stance and held an opening convention in Bombay on August 15, 1967, which was India’s Independence Day. In the months that followed, the Concord grew into a large, loud, and successful organisation.
• In Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa Gujarat, and Saurashtra, regional units called “accords” were set up. The different groups in Saurashtra and Gujarat, which were set up before the Concord, have sometimes met together. The kings of South India talk to each other informally, but no regional group has been set up. The regional groups and regular letters from the Concord office in New Delhi are good ways for all Concord members to get information and policy updates.
• The Concorde itself is made up of three levels:
Everyday tasks are taken care of by the “Ministritant committee” (Executive committee), which is led by the Maharaja of Dhrangadhra, who is the “Incident General” (Executive director). Most of the members of the Ministerial Committee, which has about ten people, were part of the group that came up with the Concord in July 1967.
A bigger, more representative group called the “Conciliar Committee” makes decisions about general policy. This group is made up of about 40 princesses from all of India’s princely areas. They meet about three times a year.
The convention, to which all 279 rulers (people who get money from the Privy purse), is the largest group. About once a year, conventions are held so that Concord members can vote on big policy statements. Convention and Conciliar Committee meetings are generally led by the “Convener-General” (President), the Maharaja of Baroda, or the “Pro-Convener-General” (Vice President), the Begum Bhopal.
• The special names of office holders and committees in the Concord aren’t just a nod to whimsy. Instead, they’re meant to ease any tensions over protocol or order of things. For the same reason, a lot of work has gone into making sure that different ways of addressing, greeting, and signing are used correctly. KM Panikker once said about the Chamber of Princess, “Organising a new institution is always hard, but it’s twice as hard when that institution is made up of Princess who have never worked together before.”
• Even though many Concord members have “experience working together,” they still have to deal with traditional concerns about position and rank. The Chamber of Princes, which was in place from 1919 to 1947, was an important step towards the Concord. However, the Concord has had to deal with the fact that it has been 20 years since the end of the Chamber of Princes and that it is now a body designed for action and pressure instead of discussion and prestige, which was the Chamber’s main purpose.
Even though the Concord was made because of the AICC decisions, it is not just about the privy purse. It is registered with the Government of India as a “general purpose organisation,” and it has worked on topics other than the privy purse conflict. It is clear, though, that the privy purse problem, which the Concord prefers to call the “Treaty regard” issue, has been the main focus of Concord’s attention and the thing that has brought together its drivers, despite their differences in region, status, and other ways.
• The fact that the “privy purse” debate has gone on for so long has probably made Concord more united. At the end of 1967, the government probably could have done what it did at the end of 1970. Several things could be to blame for the fact that it didn’t do so.
First, it wasn’t clear how much the government cared about the course. It looked like the Congress left and leftist groups were pushing the government to act. In May 1969, for example, socialist MP Rabi Ray presented a bill in the Lok Sabha to get rid of privy purses. The bill was defeated in part because the Prime Minister said the government would pass its own bill soon.
Second, if Indira Gandhi wanted to get rid of privy purses and privileges, she would have chosen to negotiate an agreement with the princess to keep their political support, even though she wanted to repeat Sardar Patel’s “negotiated overthrow” of the Princess in 1947. This time, the government found the princess to be firm and unwilling to change her mind. They chose the maharajas of Dhrangadhra and Baroda, as well as the Begum of Bhopal, to be their “mediators” in talks. The government tried to get around this arrangement, but they were unsuccessful. Even though they were always ready to talk with Government negotiators, Concord’s representatives stuck to their basic position that they would not give up their constitutionally guaranteed rights without clear assurance that the Government would give them something in return. There were many different ways to argue about the Princess. Some people said that the privy purse agreements were “sacred pledges.” For those who agree that princely perks should be phased out but think that “persecution of the princess” and “negotiations under pressure” are unacceptable ways to handle things, breaking these rules would destroy India’s credibility among other countries. It looked like the Princess had little to lose and maybe a lot to gain by being stubborn.
During the three years between the AICC resolution and the introduction of the abolition bill, other issues, such as the Presidential elections, the nationalisation of banks, and the split in Congress, which were either more important or less talked about, took precedence over the privy purse issue. When the Congress broke up, it had an interesting effect on the Concord. Before the split, it looked like Concord was on the rise. When the Congress broke up, however, three-quarters of the Congress princesses joined Indira Gandhi’s side, making it harder for other parties to win them over. At the same time, both sides of Congress felt it was important to emphasise that they were socialists and that they stuck to the 10 points programme, which included getting rid of privy purses and perks. The result in the Concord was a sense of hopelessness, as the notes below show.
• “After a shaky start, the Concord had slowly grown in importance by the end of its second year. MPs from Concord had won at least two big battles, first by making good use of the SSP motion and then by stopping it. People then talked about the body with care, as if it was something important. Soon after the start of the third year, things started to go downhill because of the split in Congress and its political effects.
• Indira Gandhi tried to get the Princess to give in without putting too much pressure on her, but she was unsuccessful. On September 1, 1970, she finally passed the long-awaited law to end slavery in the Lok Sabha. The law was a Constitutional Amendment that got rid of the parts of the Constitution that had to do with the princess. Because of this, it needed two-thirds of the votes in both houses of Parliament to pass. Indira Gandhi could count on the backing of socialists, communists, the DMK, and most of her own Congress.
• To get the latter, she told every Republican in Congress to vote for the bill. Several of the Princes who were still in Congress(R) asked for permission to vote against the bill. When they were denied, the Raja of Narsinghgarh, Bhanu Prakash Singh, quit his job as deputy minister for industrial development, and the Maharaja of Tripura, who had helped Congress win back 27 of 30 MLAs and 2 MPs from his home state in 1967, quit the Congress parliamentary party. Other Congress princes (except for Karan Singh Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, who is in charge of tourism and voted for the bill) choose to vote against the bill without leaving the party.
Even though Swatantra, Jan Sangh, Bhartiya Kranti dal, the Congress(O), and a few independents all opposed the bill, it passed the lower house with the needed two-thirds majority on September 3 and was brought up in the Rajya Sabha the next day. On September 5, the amendment bill died when the Prime Minister’s move to look at the bill failed by one vote.
The government had tried to get full constitutional approval for their plan, but they have now gone back to an alternative plan that had been talked about before but put aside. On September 7, the Finance Minister, Y B Chavan, went to Parliament and read a presidential order that said all the kings were no longer important. Indira Gandhi did this to do outside of Parliament what she had not been able to do through Parliament. At the same time, she got back in charge when things didn’t go her way by saying that the fact that she didn’t get a two-thirds majority in the upper house was a moral win. People who didn’t agree with the president’s order said it was a “travesty of democracy” and against the Constitution.
• To get their case heard, eight of the “de-recognized” kings brought a case against the Presidential Order to the Supreme Court of India. The Concord had been saving money for months in case they had to go to court. They had also hired the best lawyers they could find to argue their cases. The princes whose names were used in the lawsuits were also well-chosen and respected people from all over royal India.The court took the case, even though the government said that Article 363 of the Constitution said that any problems with privy purses couldn’t be brought to the court. After hearing arguments for several weeks, the court decided on December 15 that the President of India had overstepped his authority and that the princes were still entitled to all the privileges and privy purses they had before the Presidential Order.
Again, it didn’t take long for Indira Gandhi to try to turn a loss into a win. Late in December, she told President V V Giri that the Lok Sabha should be dissolved and that elections should be held a year before the end of the fifth Lok Sabha’s five-year term. This was because by-elections held after the Congress split in late 1969 had given Indira Gandhi a lot of power. Because she was sure that her party would do better in early elections and because the court’s decision was a big deal, If she wins a strong majority in the March 1971 election, as she is sure to do, resubmitting the constitutional change bill will be at the top of her list of things to do in parliament. This makes the fifth general election in India more like a vote of the people than any election before it.
The most important question for political analysis of the election will be whether or not the attack on the princes hurt their traditional support in their own areas and whether or not the socialist stance of the Congress won enough support in non-princely areas to make up for Indira Gandhi’s alienation of formerly pro-Congress princes and the mobilisation of previously non-political rulers. In the process, it has won some battles and lost others, but it has also created new and stronger ties between members of the princely order, turning them from a traditional and disorganised social group into an effective and cohesive interest group that uses modern political methods to protect their economic and social interests.
No matter what the final decision is in the privy purse debate, this change is sure to have some long-term effects. Rulers have different ideas about what role the Concord might play after the privy purse issue is no longer in the news, but they all seem to agree on the value of the association and the need to keep it going.
• The role the Concord might play in electoral politics is limited by the fact that Concord members belong to different political parties and that few want Concord to become a political party. In the past, rulers were sometimes asked to negotiate electoral alliances between their own parties, and it’s possible that their generally polite manner and the communication channels set up through the Concord helped make it easier for the “Grand Alliance” of the Jan Sangh, Swatantra, Congress(o), and the SSP to come together.
• Unlike what most people think, the princes have not left politics. Instead, they have taken on new and more important roles in India’s open political system. Interestingly, most of the blame for the rise in political action by princes must go to the way that system works.If the previous rulers had been “left alone” after giving up their thrones, some might have run for office, but most likely would have faded from public view, as the common myth says they would. They weren’t left alone, though. Political parties stepped in and offered political status to past rulers in exchange for the votes they could get from their former subjects. The Congress party took advantage of this setup more than any other group. This is the same party that has recently tried to get rid of all special princely status.In a similar way, the events that were meant to get rid of the last bits of royal privilege have, in a strange way, helped the princes get back into politics. Many members of the princely order who had fought the urge to run for office in the past are now doing so to protect their privy purses, privileges, and, in a way, their honour.
• As the princes lose the aloofness that has kept many of them out of politics, they may also lose some of the mystery that has kept them in power in the past. This type of “defensive modernization” adds to the other things that have happened and changed over the past 20 years to turn masters into citizens and citizen-politicians.
• Only if they can turn their traditional resources into political wins while also learning new political and organisational skills will the short-term resurgence of the princes become a permanent part of Indian politics. Maybe, as Pareto said, “history is the graveyard of aristocracies,” but for the time being and for the foreseeable future, the former nobles are still a big and important part of Indian politics.