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Indian Royalty Finds Democracy Role

February 27, 1998

GWALIOR, India (AP) _ In pouring rain, the parliamentary candidate addresses a crowd in his sleepy hometown. ``The doors of my house are always open to you,″ he says.

It may be campaign rhetoric, but it’s no mere home. Madhav Rao Scindia lives in a 500-room palace, once the seat of the powerful maharajas who ruled central India.

Fans push close to drape flower garlands around Scindia’s neck. Others fall at his feet. Although a political veteran at 51, Scindia is not accustomed to jostling, and looks distinctly uncomfortable at the pushing and shoving.

He is expected to win office for the eighth time in a row when voters in Gwalior, the heart of his constituency and of his family’s ancestral holdings, go to the polls Saturday in the last major day of parliamentary balloting in India. A new assembly is expected to be seated by mid-March.

In 1947, when India gained independence from the British _ who had propped up many a maharaja _ the new nation absorbed more than 500 semi-independent kingdoms and princely states. Determined to create a socialist, classless society, the 1950 constitution stripped royalty of their titles.

But royal descendants continue to draw respect from many ordinary Indians. Scindia is not alone in parlaying old money and titles into a political career in India. Elsewhere in the country, at least 10 descendants of former ruling families are running for parliament.

Scindia, who has held a seat in parliament since he was 25 years old, says he’s interested in politics because of his family’s commitment to this region, and a desire to contribute to the nation’s progress.

He’s a stiff campaigner, used to deference from those around him. At 51, he’s handsome in his traditional white suit of tunic and pajamas.

The fact that he belongs to a former ruling family is a crucial electoral advantage for Scindia. He’s a favorite no matter which party he represents _ this time it’s Congress. In the seven elections he has fought and won, he has changed parties four times.

``There is no level playing field for the opposition,″ says Amrish Herdenia, a local journalist.

The Scindias are one of the wealthiest of the former royal families, with their fleet of cars, palaces and huge business interests that includes a shipping company.

His mother, Gwalior’s former queen, Vijay Raje Scindia, and sister Vasundhara Raje Scindia, are also in parliament, representing different districts and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party.

Although Scindia and his mother live in separate wings of the sprawling 125-year-old JaiVilas Palace, their political differences are so sharp they rarely spoke to each other until recently when she fell ill.

The BJP is widely expected to win the federal parliamentary elections.

Discontent is rippling through parts of Gwalior, especially the urban areas. Despite Scindia’s claims of working for progress, Gwalior’s roads and services are poor.

``The people are through with kings and princes,″ says Sanjeev Tewari, 30, a taxi driver.

``Politics in Gwalior has been trapped in the palace,″ said BJP candidate, JaiBhan Singh Pavaiya, who pledges to bring democracy to Gwalior, 192 miles south of New Delhi.

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