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the Dowager Maharani of Gwalior, Vice-President of the World Hindu Council and doyenne of India’s growing army of militant Hindu revivalists – you will get many different replies. All of them will, however, be forceful. Like Lady Thatcher – whose unshakeable convictions and sense of destiny she shares – the Rajmata provokes the strongest of responses.

      In her time the Rajmata (Queen Mother) has been called a madwoman and a saint; a dangerous reactionary and a national saviour; a stubborn and self-righteous old lunatic and a brave and resilient visionary. At the age of seventy-nine she is still an enigma. Though her father was born to an ordinary smallholding family in an anonymous Indian village, she managed to win the hand of one of the subcontinent’s premier Maharajahs, and for many years ruled with him over an area the size of Portugal. Her vast baroque palace contained – among other treasures – the second-largest chandelier in the world; but her kingdom was dissolved at Independence in 1947, and by the mid-seventies her politics led to her spending months in a filthy Indian prison, sharing a cell with prostitutes, gangsters and murderers.

      The Rajmata is very religious, and spends at least two hours every day deep in prayer. Few, even among her enemies, would deny that she is one of the most remarkable politicians in India, and for nearly fifty years she has ceaselessly fought and suffered for what she believes in: the toppling of the increasingly corrupt and power-hungry Congress Party and its replacement by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

      Yet it is far from impossible that the political revolution the Rajmata hopes to effect could in the long term change India from a tolerant secular democracy to some sort of ultra-nationalist Hindu state. Moreover, if she succeeds in her aims, India’s largest minority – its 150 million Muslims – will effectively find themselves second-class citizens in their own country. Although the Rajmata may personally be a good and even a holy woman, many aspects of her party’s agenda remain deeply troubling.

      For the BJP is not like other Indian political parties, in that it was founded as the political arm of a neo-fascist paramilitary organisation, the secretive Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (Association of National Volunteers, or RSS). To this day most senior BJP figures have RSS backgrounds, and several hold posts in both organisations. The RSS and the BJP both believe, as the centrepiece of their ideology, that India is in essence a Hindu nation, and that the minorities, especially the Muslims, may live there only if they acknowledge this.

      Like the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS was founded in direct imitation of 1930s European fascist movements; and like its models it still makes much of daily parading in khaki drill. The RSS views this as an essential element in the creation of a corps of dedicated and disciplined paramilitary followers who, so the theory goes, will form the basis of a revival of some long-lost golden age of national strength and purity.

      It is easy to laugh at the RSS as they line up every morning in shabby mofussil towns across northern India to drill with their Boy Scout shorts and bamboo swagger-sticks, but their founding philosophy is anything but comical. Madhav Gowalkar, the early RSS leader still known simply as ‘the Guru’, took direct inspiration from Hitler’s treatment of Germany’s religious minorities: ‘To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by the purging of its Semitic race, the Jews,’ Gowalkar wrote admiringly in We, or Our Nationhood Defined. ‘National pride in its highest has been manifested there. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures having differences going to the root to be assimilated … The non-Hindu people in Hindustan must learn … to revere the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but the glorification of the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving nothing.’

      During Partition, the RSS was responsible for many of the most horrifying atrocities against India’s Muslims, and it was a former RSS member, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, for ‘pandering to the minorities’. Today, both the RSS and the BJP have moved a long way since the time when they were little more than a vehicle for an extreme form of neo-fascist Hindu fundamentalism, and the BJP in particular now embraces a wide spectrum of conservative and nationalist opinion. Moreover, the rise of the BJP has taken place, at least partly, due to Indian Muslims’ increasing distrust of the Congress, which despite claiming to be a secular party has, since the 1980s, done less and less to protect India’s minorities.

      Nevertheless, the BJP and its Hindu nationalist allies have been consistently implicated across northern India in the almost monthly anti-Muslim pogroms which are becoming such a defining feature of India at the close of the twentieth century. However respectable its leaders have become, and however inured the Indian élite have become to its message, when communal riots break out the local cadres of the RSS and the BJP are rarely far away. Indeed, as the Rajmata’s BJP gathers momentum, and its ideology grows in popularity and respectability, India has seen communal conflict assume a scale and significance not witnessed since the massacres of Partition half a century ago.

      Yet for all this, to meet the Rajmata, and to sit listening to her over breakfast, you would never guess she could be capable of anything more sinister than winning an award for Most Loveable Granny at an English village fête.

      ‘Please, Mr William,’ she said, ‘you must have one more guava. This is the height of the season.’

      ‘I mustn’t. I’ve got to watch my weight.’

      ‘When I was a girl I always thought it better to have a little extra round the middle. In those days we thought it a sign of good health.’

      ‘No. Really. Thank you.’

      ‘Never mind. I’ll keep it for you for tea.’

      She clapped her hand, and the small green piece of fruit was carried away on an escutcheoned plate by a liveried bearer.

      The Rajmata was sitting at the top of the table in the grand dining room of the Jal Vilas Palace in Gwalior. As she nibbled at pieces of fruit from the huge crystal bowl in front of her, she chatted happily about the progress of her day. Although it was only eight o’clock in the morning, the old lady had already been up for two and a half hours performing her lengthy morning puja (religious devotions).

      ‘Everyone gets very angry,’ she said, ‘because before I do anything in the morning I must spend at least two hours bathing my little Krishna, putting on his clothes and decorating him with garlands. I do it just the particular way he likes it.’


      ‘Oh yes.’

      ‘You have a … close relationship with Krishna?’ I asked.

      ‘I can’t really describe what it’s like,’ said the Rajmata. ‘I mean, I really shouldn’t: it’s so personal. It’s … it’s like two lovers: you can’t say to them, “Describe how you behave when you are together.”’

      Sitting silently beside me, still in his leather jacket, was Sardar Angre, the Blofeld-figure I had seen the day before at the airport. He kept out of the conversation about the Rajmata’s puja, and for its duration appeared absorbed in his omelette.

      When the Rajmata’s husband died in July 1961 and the Dowager Maharani became estranged from her son Mahadav Rao Scindia, the new Maharajah, Sardar Angre stepped in to the breach and began acting as her constant companion and adviser. A nobleman whose family has served the Gwalior Maharajahs since the eighteenth century, the Sardar holds the Rajmata in an awe and respect which has not dimmed with time. She in turn looks to him for advice and guidance. They make a good team: he is as dry, sober and practical as she is mystical and quixotic.

      As the conversation at the breakfast table turned, inevitably, to politics, the Rajmata commented that the recent dramatic rise in the popularity of the BJP seemed to be almost supernaturally guided.

      ‘Really,’ she said, ‘it is nothing short of a miracle.’

      ‘No, no, Highness,’ said Sardar Angre in his measured tone. ‘It is the will of the people.’

      ‘This is your view,’ said the Rajmata firmly. ‘But I see the hand of God. I believe it is the doing of

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