The former maharaja of the princely state of Gwalior and a people-friendly politician, Madhavrao Scindia could have become India’s Prime Minister in 2004 if not for a cruel twist of fate: his untimely death in a plane crash.
In its obituary of him, British daily The Guardian said of Scindia, “His aristocratic lineage, personal charm, articulateness, youthful image and talent for the rough and tumble of democratic politics shaped his mass appeal. Sonia Gandhi may have had the charisma of leadership and the family name, but Scindia had the oratorical powers and was Congress’s second-biggest crowd-puller.”
Madhavrao Scindia was born on 10 March 1945 in Bombay (now Mumbai) to the royal household of Gwalior in the royal Scindia dynasty — it was founded in 1726 by Ranuji Scindia and ruled the erstwhile state of Gwalior which was based in present-day Madhya Pradesh.
On the recommendation of Nawab of Pataudi (Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi), Scindia went to Winchester, England in 1962 to complete his education. A year later he joined New College, Oxford.
Within a year of returning to India, Madhavrao contested and won the 1971 general elections on a Jana Sangh ticket from Guna constituency in Madhya Pradesh. His mother Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia was already a member of the Sangh.
After the Emergency was declared in June 1975, Madhavrao fled to England. At the time he is reported to have said, “Why should I go to jail for a cause to which I am not committed?”
He, then, resigned from the Jana Sangh and returned to India. Personal secretary of Vijaya Raje Scindia — Sambhajirao Chandroji — told India Today in 1991, “He chickened out because the Jan Sangh did not do so well in the 1972 Vidhan Sabha elections.”
Despite stiff resistance from his family, Madhavrao joined the Congress and successfully won the Guna constituency in the 1980 elections.
However, in order to avoid a direct clash with his mother, Madhavrao contested elections from Gwalior constituency in the 1984 elections and achieved the distinction of defeating the man who would become Bharatiya Janata Party’s first prime minister — Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Madhavrao Scindia was elected to the Lok Sabha for nine terms.
Feud with his mother
The feud between Scindia and his mother started when Madhavrao contested from a Congress ticket in 1980 elections.
A clash between Vijaya Raje and her daughter-in-law Madhvi Raje may have been the root cause of the dispute. India Today reported, “Spewing vitriol at her, Vijaya Raje has been saying that her “sterling of a boy” was spoilt by “this greedy and arrogant woman”.”
In the 1980 general elections, while Madhavrao contested from Guna, his mother Vijaya Raje was the opposition candidate against Indira Gandhi from Rae Bareli.
“Over the years, this essentially political fight spilt out of the Gwalior palace into national attention. Today, it includes all the ingredients of a box-office blockbuster: a stubborn queen-mother guided by a scheming courtier, an equally determined son fighting back grimly a clutch of avaricious, unscrupulous relatives, and an occasional guru egging his particular disciple on,” India Today said of the feud between Vijaya Raje and Madhavrao.
The family bitterness soon transformed into legal battles which ran into crores of rupees and continues even after the death of both Vijaya Raje Scindia and Madhavrao Scindia. Business Standard places the legal battle within the Scindia family in the top five princely litigations in the country. The spoils are reported to be worth almost Rs 20,000 crore.
In his political career, Madhavrao Scindia held several important posts. He was easily the most visible face of the Congress party. During his tenure as the railway minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s administration between 1984 to 1986, Madhavrao successfully introduced the Shatabdi Express. He is also credited with the modernisation and computerisation of railways.
Madhavrao also served as civil aviation and tourism minister in P.V Narasimha Rao’s government between 1991 and 1993. He faced a difficult time as aviation minister due to agitation by Indian Airlines staff. He resigned from the post following a plane crash.
A keen cricketer, Madhavrao also served the Board of Control for Cricket in India between 1990 and 1993 as its president.
In 1995, he was part of the Union cabinet as human resource development minister.
Madhavrao played an important role for the Congress after Sonia Gandhi took charge as the Congress president in 1998.
Gandhi who was not so at all fluent in Hindi often asked Madhavrao to perform parliamentary responsibilities. He played a major role in handling party affairs both in and outside Parliament.
On 30 September 2001, Madhavrao Scindia died alongside four journalists while travelling in a Cessna C-90 aircraft minutes after taking off from Delhi.
Following his untimely death, former president K.R. Narayanan said, “A bright political career and promising leadership has been cut short in the prime by this gruesome crash.”
In 2004, Gandhi declined to become the prime minister when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) formed the government and Manmohan Singh was named the PM.
Jyotiraditya Scindia and Vasundhara Raje Scindia
Madhavrao’s family members are still very much actively involved in politics.
His son Jyotiraditya Scindia is a senior Congress leader who is currently in charge of All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh West.
Madhavrao’s sister Vasundhara Raje Scindia has served as Rajasthan chief minister between 2003 and 2008 and 2013 and 2018, and the other sister, Yashodhara Raje Scindia, was minister of commerce, industries and employment in Madhya Pradesh government between 2013 and 2018.
History repeats itself
In 2018, following Congress’s victory in the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections, Madhavrao’s son Jyotiraditya lost out to Kamal Nath in the race to become chief minister.
Almost 30 years earlier, Jyotiraditya’s father Madhavrao had also missed out on the post due to stiff opposition from senior party leader Arjun Singh.
Singh was forced down to step down from the CM’s post in light of the Churhat lottery scam in 1989. Madhavrao was so sure of become chief minister that he camped in the state for two days.
However, Arjun Singh ensured that Madhavrao did not become CM — Motilal Vora was appointed in his stead.