Maharani Gayatri Devi, known for being one of India’s last original royals, died on 29 July, 2009. This interview with Shekhar Gupta on NDTV 24×7’s Walk the Talk in 2006 shows Gayatri Devi’s views on her public and political life, her admiration for C Rajagopalachari, what she disliked about Nehru’s policies, and more.
Shekhar Gupta (SG): My guest today is one of the most beautiful women in the world. Maharani Gayatri Devi, welcome to Walk the Talk.
Maharani Gayatri Devi (MGD): Thank you very much for asking me to be on it.
SG: You are not only an incredibly beautiful woman, you are also an incredibly brave woman. You’ve handled challenges and tragedies.
MGD: Many tragedies and I was a Member of Parliament for three terms which is quite challenging.
SG: You’ve handled personal tragedies — your husband and son both leaving you early.
MGD: I don’t want to talk about those things.
SG: I believe you were in this building when the Income Tax officials came here during the Emergency.
MGD: Yes, I was.
SG: Can you describe those moments?
MGD: Well, they just came and told me there are some people wanting to talk to me. I said that I wasn’t expecting anybody. Then the Income Tax Department people came. Everybody in the Opposition was raided. But nobody in the Congress was raided. The Rajmata of Gwalior, myself, all of us who were in the Opposition were raided. They raided all the palaces here and found nothing.
SG: But there was a lot in the press…
MGD: I don’t know about that.
SG: During the Emergency, your passport was taken away because of international activity…
MGD: There was no international activity. I was due to go to Calgary in Canada, which had trade relations with Jaipur and they just took away my passport. They didn’t give any explanation. Then they went up to Jaigarh and raided that too. I am not sure if I am right in saying this, but I think everybody of the raiding party met with a tragedy in their family.
SG: You mean they got cursed by the fact that they raided…
MGD: No, something happened in their families.
SG: So that happened because they carried a curse from these raids?
MGD: No, because they went to Jaigarh, which is a sacred place. They found nothing. But they destroyed quite a lot of the beautiful fort. I think I am right in saying that everybody had a tragedy in their families.
SG: You had to endure a five-month term in Tihar.
MGD: But we were quite comfortable in Tihar. They looked after us very well. The Rajmata of Gwalior was there. In fact, the entire Opposition was there.
SG: If you were not taken, it would have looked as if you were not important enough.
MGD: Yes. I didn’t go alone, Bhawani Singh came with me and he was a Mahavir Chakra winner.
SG: How tough was it?
MGD: Not tough.
SG: …From palace life to Tihar life.
MGD: I wasn’t in the palace, I was living up here and in Delhi I had an ordinary house. In Tihar, I had my own bedroom with a verandah and my own bathroom. So it wasn’t so bad, except we were not free.
SG: How did you spend your time in the jail?
MGD: There was a lot to do. I looked after people, started a school for children. There was a badminton court where we used to play badminton.
SG: Did you make friends in jail? Political friends?
MGD: No, the only person I talked to was the Rajmata of Gwalior, who was next-door.
SG: I believe you were originally asked to share your room with her.
MGD: No. She wasn’t in jail. She was in a lovely house somewhere and she was expecting me there. But they put me in Tihar and said that they were bringing her there. I helped arrange her room.
SG: I believe you told the jail authorities that you can’t share a room because you have very different habits. You exercise and she does puja.
MGD: No, no.
SG: You listen to music late into the night and read, she sleeps early.
MGD: No, no. All this is rubbish.
SG: But it’s in your biography.
MGD: Everything in there is not true.
SG: Did you meet any of the other political leaders who were in jail at that time?
MGD: The women’s wing was separate from the men’s and most of the men were not in Tihar. In fact, Tihar was not really for political prisoners.
SG: Did you feel victimised? Why did Mrs Gandhi pick upon you?
MGD: Because I was in the Opposition. If I had been in the Congress, I wouldn’t have been in jail. It’s so obvious.
SG: There was nothing personal about it?
MGD: Of course not.
SG: Because there were some suggestions that there was something personal.
MGD: Whoever made that suggestion is a fool. Why should there be anything personal? We hardly knew each other, there could be nothing personal. She was very polite when we met.
SG: Was there bitterness with Mrs Gandhi that she did this to the Opposition?
SG: You didn’t go back to politics after the Emergency.
MGD: I did go back.
SG: Only once, and then you sort of lost interest.
MGD: Fifteen years is a long time. And you can’t do anything for your constituency.
SG: Is that what you felt?
MGD: I felt that and I think everybody feels that. I don’t know why they go back to politics, you can’t do anything.
SG: Most people go back to politics because it is an office of profit now.
MGD: Maybe, I don’t know. But here, for instance, I am in the Opposition. I am fighting the Congress. What can I do for my constituency? Nowadays the MPs get money, they get a crore.
SG: MPLAD fund.
MGD: If I had that, I could have done lots of things for my people.
SG: Tell us about your first election, your first experience of politics. Did you just walk into it, not knowing what it meant, or you had thought about it?
MGD: I don’t know if you have heard of C Rajagopalachari and his Swatantra Party.
MGD: People came to me to talk about the Swatantra Party and what Rajaji wanted to do. I thought it was a very good idea. I had great respect for Pandit Nehru, but didn’t like his policy of nationalising everything. Free India, swatantra Bharat, swatantra janata was what I believed in.
SG: You believed in free economy?
MGD: Of course. When these people came to talk to us, I asked my husband, “May I join the Swatantra Party?” He said, “Yes”. I was going out for a ride in the morning and I sent for the secretary in Rajasthan and joined the Swatantra Party. Then when the election time came near, they asked me to contest from Jaipur. I had no intention of being a Member of Parliament. My husband said, “You’d be the obvious choice”. The election campaign began, it was an eye opener. In those days people didn’t know how to read and you had a list of the names of the candidates. The Swatantra Party’s sign was the star.
SG: You won by a record margin. You were in the Guinness Book for a long time.
MGD: Yes. Has somebody beaten me?
SG: I think Ram Vilas Paswan.
MGD: No, can’t be possible.
SG: We’ll check that again
MGD: How can we check that?
SG: We can check records and inform you.
MGD: I didn’t even know. My son Jagat was in school in England. He sent me a telegram, “Congratulations, you are in the Guinness Book of Records”.
SG: During those five months in jail, did you regret being in politics?
MGD: I never regretted being in politics, I never regretted being in the Swatantra Party, I never regretted being a chela of Rajaji’s. He believed that India should be really free.
SG: If you look at the two personalities, he and Nehru, both towering personalities, where did they differ?
MGD: Both were great friends. When Pandit Nehru had to send somebody to America to talk to Kennedy, he chose Rajaji. I admire Rajaji because he had a vision for India.
SG: Take us back to Parliament those days. If elections were different, Parliament was also different those days.
MGD: I don’t know what it’s like now.
SG: Right now there’s a lot of maara-mari, commotion, adjournments, walkouts, fights and interruptions.
MGD: It was better in those days, I suppose. Interruptions were always there.
SG: I believe you interrupted Nehru once.
MGD: Yes, once. That was because when we had this thing with China…
SG: The war?
MGD: Yes. Prof N G Ranga of the Swatantra Party told me, “Jawaharlal will make fun of me” and I said, “In what way?”. He said, “You wait and see”. When Pandit Nehru was replying to a debate on China, he said, “Prof Ranga… professors will know more than he does”. So I got up and said, “If you had known anything, we wouldn’t have been in this mess today”. He sat down and another Member of Parliament stood up and said, “I didn’t hear what the honourable lady member said”. So I said, “May I repeat it. That if you, the Prime Minister, had known what was happening we wouldn’t have been in this mess today”. The next day the secretary of the Lok Sabha said, “Maharani saheb, how could you be rude to someone older to you?”
SG: I believe the reputation spread that you were one of Nehru’s critics. I believe when you met Kennedy for the first time, he introduced you as India’s Barry Goldwater, who was a great critic of his at that point.
MGD: Ah yes, something like that happened.
SG: You have memories of Kennedy?
MGD: Yes, I remember staying with them in the White House. Jacqueline Kennedy and myself were walking in the garden when he called me. I went to his office and there were some Senators there. He said, “This lady has won by a bigger majority than we’ll ever get”.
SG: What was he like, Kennedy?
MGD: Charming and I think a very good president.
SG: Did he have this deadly charm for women that he is reputed to have?
MGD: How would I know?
SG: Of the international personalities you’ve come across in your life, who are the ones who have left an impression on you?
MGD: Quite frankly, nobody.
SG: You interacted with leaders, princes, princesses.
MGD: C Rajagopalachari, definitely. And strangely enough, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He loved India and India loved him. But the things he did were not right for India.
SG: Which things in particular?
MGD: Nationalisation. There was no private enterprise. Everything had to be state-owned.
SG: Did you ever get a chance to talk to him about this?
MGD: No, hardly. I was young and he was an older man. How’d I have the cheek to go and talk about it?
SG: Did you ever discuss this with Mrs Gandhi?
MGD: No, of course not.
SG: You think Mrs Gandhi was a true believer in Nehru’s socialism?
MGD: I have no idea. I haven’t even bothered to think about her.
SG: Because the next big dose of socialism came in her reign from 1969 until 1975. She nationalised banks, withdrew your privy purses and took away your titles. She nationalised insurance, brought in labour laws, put in restraints on free movement of grains.
MGD: I wasn’t aware of that. I know about the privy purses. I know it was during Nehru’s time that nationalisation began.
SG: And you never had a chance to talk to Mrs Gandhi about it?
MGD: What for? Never.
SG: How do you look back on your own stint in public life? I know you’ve set up these marvellous schools in Jaipur.
MGD: I started those before I went into politics.
SG: I don’t mean public life only as politics. You also have a public life as the Maharani of Jaipur.
MGD: Well, you marry into a state like this, you have responsibilities towards the people. Rajasthan, for instance, had purdah and His Highness didn’t like purdah. So I told him, “You give me a girl’s school and purdah will disappear”. Thus, the Maharani Gayatri Devi School was established. We also started a fund. That was started more by my husband than myself. It was called the Sawai Jai Singh Benevolent Fund for all the poor people of Jaipur state. It still exists.
SG: You talked about your husband’s dislike for the purdah. I believe you yourself disliked purdah immensely.
MGD: I’ve never been in purdah in my life, so how could I dislike it?
SG: You talked about apprehensions regarding marrying him, coming to Jaipur in a very traditional…
MGD: No, not at all. It’s all rubbish.
SG: You always defied the system.
MGD: I didn’t defy anything. Whatever is the custom here, I follow that. But I wasn’t in purdah. I went riding every morning. I played tennis every afternoon and I didn’t do that in purdah.
SG: Tell me the difference between princely life and as life changed 1969 onwards. Did the princes have a tough time changing their lifestyles?
MGD: Of course not.
SG: But the titles were taken away.
MGD: So what?
SG: The privy purses were taken away.
MGD: So what?
SG: There was not enough money to maintain the palaces.
MGD: Of course, there was.
SG: But so many palaces had to be given away.
MGD: The choice was with the ruler. When His Highness decided to turn Rambagh into a hotel, his elder son Bhawani Singh and I went to him and said, “How can you turn Rambagh into a hotel?”. He said, “We don’t need a palace anymore, but Jaipur needs a hotel”.
SG: At the same time, there were adjustment problems because many of them did not adjust very well, and fights broke out in the families.
MGD: I don’t know who didn’t adjust well. But our family adjusted very well.
SG: How do you look at today’s politics? I know you have views about the city of Jaipur.
MGD: I am not bothered about today’s politics. And the city of Jaipur is ruined because nobody loves Jaipur. Everybody’s just making money
SG: But so many tourists are coming here.
MGD: They came before.
SG: What can be done for Jaipur now?
MGD: It’s too late. I wouldn’t have allowed those houses. They were not allowed in the olden days. They were allowed only up to a certain height, a certain style. Jaipur had a presence, an atmosphere. The people loved the Maharaja more than they do today’s leaders.
SG: People love you as much as they loved the Maharaja. You are the biggest brand ambassador for Jaipur.
This interview was originally published in The Indian Express in 2009.