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Gayatri Devi, princess-politician and Indira Gandhi critic who was jailed during Emergency

Gayatri Devi, whom the Congress twice sought as a member, made history with her landslide victory in the 1962 Lok Sabha elections as the Swatantra Party's Jaipur candidate.

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The royal family of Jaipur has appeared twice in the Guinness Book of World Records. First, for the world’s most expensive wedding, that of the eldest daughter of Sawai Man Singh II, and then, for the largest majority won by any candidate in any election in any democratic country in the world, that candidate being Sawai Man Singh II’s third wife, the former princess of Cooch Behar and the Rajmata of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi.

Known for her beautiful chiffon saris teamed with pearl or polki necklaces, she was one of the most modern, independent and chic Maharanis of India. Her name has appeared in multiple lists of the world’s most beautiful women and her look was copied by women all over, but that never concerned her, nor, she said, was she even aware of this.

“I was totally unconscious of anything like that. I never thought so much about myself, I was raised with brothers,” she once said on an episode of Rendezvous with Simi Garewal in 1998.

She was more concerned with participating in India’s democratic and sociocultural project,  evident in her patronage of polo and her work in education, notably the establishment of Jaipur’s well-known Maharani Gayatri Devi School for girls. In 1962, she contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Swatantra Party ticket and won the Jaipur seat by the biggest ever majority in the world — 1,75,000 votes.

On her 101st birth anniversary, here is a look back at the life and times of the iconic Gayatri Devi.

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Swatantra Party seemed like an oasis of sanity 

Born to the royal family of the former princely state of Cooch Behar now in West Bengal, Gayatri Devi had always seen her brother rule in a just manner. People could come straight to him if they had problems, she told Garewal. One year, she said, when all of West Bengal suffered in a famine, tiny Cooch Behar remained unaffected because plenty of precautions were taken well in time. Serving the people was one’s primary duty but it was also an emotion, Devi felt, India was starting to lack.

By the 1950s, she said, the Congress party had earned a reputation for corruption and nepotism. Elected members of the legislative assembly were giving important posts to people who didn’t have the experience. Administration was deteriorating because these people were not capable of holding these positions, she said.

While Devi had strong opinions about how the country was functioning and was an open critic of Indira Gandhi, she never considered a career in politics. So it was a complete shock when the Congress asked her to contest elections for the party from the Jaipur parliamentary constituency.

“We [Devi and her husband] debated the whole matter over and over again. In those talks, I began to realise that, though I had given very little conscious thought to politics, somewhere in my mind, ideas and thoughts and arguments had been forming,” she wrote in her memoir, A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of The Maharani of Jaipur, co-written with Santha Rama Rau.

Soon after, she heard of the Swatantra Party, a classical liberal political outfit founded by C. Rajagopalachari. Calling it the only “genuine opposition party”, her stance was clear. “If my principles meant anything at all, then I couldn’t help to weaken an honest opposition party, even though I couldn’t yet bring myself to join it.” However, it was not long after that she became a party member in 1960. The party’s views were in line with Gandhi’s — that the best government is 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 sea around us,” Devi wrote in her memoir.

Devi never had any intention of standing for elections, she recalled, saying her drive to join the party stemmed from the desire to canvas for the party’s candidates, raise funds and hold fetes. “I had no dream 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,” she wrote.

However, life had something entirely different in store for her. While privy purses were abolished in 1971 and the royal families in India lost their titles and much more, their influence and popularity remained for long after. Given the love people felt for her, Gayatri Devi was a natural choice as a candidate for the Jaipur constituency. And she did contest, only to make history.

Also read: Janaki Ramachandran, the first woman chief minister of Tamil Nadu who ruled for 24 days

The politician who had never learnt Hindi

Being on ground and campaigning for two months, covering hundreds of kilometres in a jeep, wasn’t easy, but her arrival in even the remotest parts guaranteed a crowd beyond measure. Her days began at 6 am and ended not before midnight. Clean sheets, a soft pillow and a clean bathroom (if at all) became her new luxuries. Language proved to be a barrier given Devi, who had spent large portions of her childhood abroad, had never learnt Hindi properly, although she could read the Devanagari script.

“I wrote all my speeches first in English, had them translated and written out for me ahead of time, and labouriously learnt them by heart,” she recalled. However, after speaking with and to people for days on end, it was not long before she mastered the art and could even predict the kind of questions locals would raise.

She was often asked by her party members to make more effective speeches, promising the villagers a prosperous future just for the sake of a vote, but she was determined to not fall into the typical politician’s trap of false promises. “These were the people of Jaipur and if I owed them nothing else, I certainly owed them the truth,” she said.

While she went on to win by a historic margin, her future in politics, especially in opposition to the Congress, which even asked her a second time to join, was marred by tumultuous times.

Jailed in Tihar for almost six months during the Emergency on charges of undeclared wealth and gold, and having lost her brother and husband in a span of months, Devi soon left politics. But her drive and determination to help people persisted.

As she said to Garewal, “You don’t have to be in politics to do something for your country. I made that mistake, thinking that by being in politics I can do something for India.”

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  1. The most beautiful politician and queen in the world. She was worked for people. Started English Medium Schools. Good player

  2. Gayatri Devi a legend of whom India can be proud of for two reasons 1. if I can give nothing, I can certainly give truth, they owe this of me. 2. To do something to people it is not not necessary to be part of a Political party . She was so much right and she is such a reminder to these days politicians that they never bother to have not given people what they promised and certainly not the truth. Thanks The Print.

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