I AM NEITHER a king nor a kingmaker,” Jyotiraditya Scindia said as he brushed aside the label―kingmaker―used to describe his influence heading into the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections on November 17. The Union civil aviation minister has to ensure the BJP’s victory in the Gwalior-Chambal region, part of the former princely state of Gwalior, and he is giving it his all.
Unlike many of his cabinet colleagues from the state, Scindia is not contesting; however, 18 of the 25 loyalists, who left the Congress with him in 2020, are in the fray. The Gwalior-Chambal region, with 34 seats, is a decisive factor in government formation. In 2013, the BJP won 20 seats here; in 2018, the Congress won 26. An emphatic win would cement Scindia’s influence within his new political family.
THE WEEK caught up with him at a rally in Pohari, more than 80km from Gwalior, on November 3. It was his seventh and last of the day, but he showed no signs of fatigue as he arrived in his Toyota Innova to a rousing welcome by party workers who showered flowers on him. As he took the stage, the power went off. Emergency lights came up and Scindia spoke from a semi-lit stage for 15 minutes before power was restored. He was campaigning for his loyalist Suresh Dhakad, a state minister. During the entire speech, Dhakad just stood there with folded hands.
Scindia’s connect with the audience―mostly daily wagers and farmers―was instant. They had gathered to hear their maharaj, who asked them to vote for the Shivraj-Scindia jodi, while also attacking the Congress for its corruption. “I will always fight for you,” he said. “I fight for your respect. I fight for your development. Always remember that Jyotiraditya Scindia will work for your prosperity and development.”
He then reminded them of the emotional link he has with the region. “Our family had set up a Shiva temple here 200 years ago,” he said. “We have been connected to you since.”
As he hard sold Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s women-centric schemes, he called up a woman, Parvati, from the audience, and told a story about how she got money from Chouhan’s Ladli Behna scheme after she was turned away by Congress chief minister Kamal Nath earlier. Being addressed by name in an audience of thousands left Parvati dazed and emotional. Such scenes are common at a Scindia rally.
The 52-year-old has changed his campaign style to become more emotionally connected to the voters. “The last drop of blood will go for your welfare.... I will fight your battle till my last breath,” he says in rally after rally.
Between November 2 and 6, Scindia addressed more than 30 rallies, a feat unmatched by other leaders. In fact, Scindia had started early. Since June 2022, he has addressed 72 community gatherings, held cadre meetings in 18 assembly seats and has met each of the 60,000 party workers in the Gwalior-Chambal area. He is now in his third phase of direct campaign and has projected the highways, elevated roads and an international airport, which cost Rs600 crore, as achievements in the region.
In the past three years, Scindia has integrated well with the BJP, but some of his supporters are yet to adapt to the regimented style of a cadre-based party. “The BJP has a different working style,” said a veteran Scindia supporter. “Earlier we used to sit on stage with maharaj, but now it is decided on the basis of party hierarchy.” When he joined the BJP, the party had conveyed to him that cadre discipline was important; Scindia has carefully followed the saffron party culture.
The BJP seems to be fully behind him, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During his visit to the Scindia School on its 125th anniversary in Gwalior on October 21, Modi called Scindia Gujarat’s son-in-law (his wife, Priyadarshini, is from the Baroda royal family) and spoke about his links with the family.
Several local leaders claimed he was the chief minister candidate and that Modi’s words were a pat on the back.
Scindia, however, dismisses the chief minister talk. “I do not respond to hypothetical questions,” he said when asked if he would accept the post were the party to offer it.
Given that his aunt Yashodhara Raje Scindia has bowed out of the election citing health concerns―she got Covid-19 four times during the pandemic―Scindia will be the only leader from the family available for a bigger role. Scindia’s aunt Maya Singh, a former state minister, is also contesting. She had announced her decision to quit active politics, but the party gave her the Gwalior East ticket as it is facing a tough challenge there.
“This election will boost the stature of maharaj,” said Pradhuman Singh Tomar, the state power minister, who is contesting from Gwalior. Campaigning in the area around the tomb of famous musician Tansen, Tomar is accompanied by both the BJP cadre and recent imports from the Congress. Word on the street is that every contest is a tough one as the mood is for change. With anti-incumbency and various pre-poll surveys hinting at a Congress win, these elections could define the political trajectory of the Scindia camp. “The BJP had won seven seats [from the region] in 2018,” said a Scindia loyalist. “The number went up to 16 after Scindia joined the BJP and byelections were conducted. So, the challenge is to get more than 16 of 34.”
The two most well-known entities from Gwalior are the Scindias and the music gharana. UNESCO recently gave it the tag ‘City of Music’ after Scindia followed up with the Centre and the United Nations.
In the Gwalior gharana, the musical tradition is passed from father to child, for instance, from Ustad Hafiz Khan to Amjad Ali Khan. Scindia’s son, Mahanaryaman, 27, is ready, too, but he will have to wait his chance. “My father (Madhavrao Scindia) had set a different convention,” said Scindia. “He had told me if I wanted to join politics, he would step away. Similarly, when my son wants to join politics, I would, too.”