In the rough and tumble of the ‘Padmavati’ controversy, it might be easy to forget that India is a republican state, where royalty has been abolished even though some royal privileges have not been given up. Elected former members of the royalty and landed aristocracy across political parties have spoken in one voice against the release of the film.
Moving forward, parties have split along royal and republican lines. Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh of the former royal family of Patiala is opposed to the release of the film, and sides with the protesters saying, “Those feeling hurt by the distortion had the right to protest. The protests were a justified recourse in a democratic system.” Those remarks did not elucidate whether he condoned the actions of the Shri Rajput Karni Sena and its pungent remarks about actor Deepika Padukone for her role as ‘Padmavati’. His Karnataka counterpart, Siddaramaiah, a farmer’s son, has countered such a view, targeting the intolerance and hate perpetuated by the Bharatiya Janata Party. He has asked Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar to take stringent action against those threatening Padukone.
In the Congress again, against the backdrop of the ‘Padmavati’ controversy, the matter got closer home, to the pride of India’s royal past when two party MPs found themselves at opposite ends of the debate. Kunnoor MP Shashi Tharoor, cut to size the “so-called valourous maharajas” with tales of how they were complicit with the
British who went on to trample over their honour. It drew an immediate reaction from Jyotiraditya Scindia of the former royal family of Gwalior, who said, not unlike a Bollywood star, “I am Jyotiraditya Scindia and I am proud of my past.”
Feudal elements, still harbouring notions of past valour and grandeur as the ‘Padmavati’ controversy has shown, wield huge influence in a modernising India and the republican system has no ready answers on how to deal with this. Feudal elements have been a part of the journey of India’s parliamentary democracy, and been enthusiastically courted by political parties.
Jawaharlal Nehru had been staunchly against the feudal aristocracy led by “puppet princes” (puppets of the British) and this sentiment was reciprocated by members of the royalty who disliked him. It was therefore favourable to all sides that the task of dealing directly with the princes after independence was left to Vallabhbhai Patel.
When the Swatantra Party was formed soon after independence as an anti-Congress pole, it drew many royals to its fold who brought with them substantial vote banks. In subsequent elections, the party did well in areas where such elements had influence. Nehru described these aristocratic elements as “reactionary”. However, his party, even at the time, tried to bring on board these very feudal elements. In the political field, support for former royals has evidently gone beyond nostalgia to matters more substantive, like mass base.
That the republican spirit never successfully overcame underlying feudal sentiment is manifested in the number of members of former princely states in all political parties. In Rajasthan, the eye of the storm on ‘Padmavati’, the state assembly has a number of former royals as members, among them chief minister Vasundhra Raje of the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior who married into the Dholpur royal family, Siddhi Kumari of the former Bikaner royal family, Vishwendra Singh from the erstwhile royal family of Bharatpur, Randhir Singh Bhindar of the former royal family of Bhindar, and the Jaipur royalty’s Diya Kumari, who has spoken out unambiguously on the 'Padmavati' issue seeking its ban over alleged historical distortion.
The controversy over the film has given the royals, feudal elements at large and sections of upper caste Hindus an opportunity to come together, and speak in a single voice against anyone professing liberal values or poking fun at tales of chivalry in the past.
What this unsuccessfully tries to mask is the deep seated anger against those holding so-called secular and Left-liberal views, who incidentally are also the ones standing up for filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali's artistic freedom. It is not too difficult to understand why -- because the liberals and members of the Left stood against royalty, were behind the liquidation of landholdings, landlords, landed aristocracy, the abolition of privy purses and the end of royal privileges either through people's movements or making it incumbent on the government of the day to adopt these measures, sometimes described as populist. Naturally, the feudal set-up that backs the interests of the Shri Rajput Karni Sena is the one that cannot be on the same page as the Left-liberal and secular proponents.
India's graduation to a truly republican system will be flawed till such feudal elements, who continue to be addressed by their royal titles on public forums, hold sway on social issues. The obsession with royalty and privilege has not worn off, perhaps because large sections of the population continue to be poor. However, the ‘Padmavati’ row has illustrated the dangers of deferring to such a sense of entitlement, which also goes on to stall the removal of inequalities, not by law but in social relations. As the vested interests will not give up their feudal constituencies easily, the democratic process must find a way to limit their influence.