He looks pretty bright-eyed for someone who has been up for most of the previous night. Bounding into the room, file in hand, the new minister of state for Communications and IT says he’s barely had a couple of hours sleep: he’s been boning up on his new ministry, trying to quickly understand the nuances of the various departments he now heads.
Later in the morning, Jyotiraditya Scindia will be meeting the press for the first time since he was sworn into Manmohan Singh’s ministry on April 6. Though it’s still early in the day, he’s already in go-mode. Appointments have been lined up, even before he’s officially stepped into his new office. And a crowd of well-wishers waits to greet him at his Safdarjung Road residence. He seems to be acutely aware that great expectations rest on him — not just as the young face of this government but also because he is his father’s son.
Appropriately, one of his first actions after assuming office is to take out a framed photograph of Madhavrao Scindia and place it carefully on his desk. He then tells the press that it will be his endeavour to emulate his late father’s tenure at the railway ministry where, during a span of five years, Madhavrao Scindia was able to create an environment of family among railway employees.
Just days into his new job and Scindia is already able to define his agenda and priorities. First, he says, is to take communication to the grassroots level. “Connectivity,” he says, “is the gateway to opportunity, knowledge and awareness.” Next, says the minister, is to promote telecommunications as a knowledge gateway. He wants to see India move from essentially back-office processing to becoming a product nation. “This generation owes a debt of gratitude to Rajiv Gandhi who was the first leader to understand the implications of communication and IT,” says Scindia.
But what could perhaps be closest to his heart is Scindia’s vision for the postal department. “Post offices are present in every nook and corner of this country. They should become the window to the world for the common man.”
Much is made of Scindia’s royal lineage. Born in 1971, before the abolition of privy purses, the young MP certainly seems to be conscious of the weight of his heritage — not so much as a right as much as an obligation. So, although he’s the MP for Guna, he has spent much of the past six years (ever since his political debut) pumping funds into Gwalior, the state over which his ancestors ruled and which has been represented by both his father Madhavrao Scindia and grandmother Vijayaraje Scindia.
The MP for Guna has brought in over Rs 950 crores as development funds for Gwalior, and that’s not counting the over Rs 1,000 crores he’s brought to Guna.
There have been other attempts to put Gwalior on the national mindscape. Last month, Scindia was the force behind the Gwalior Heritage Festival, a three-day celebration of art and culture where such leading lights as Parveen Sultana, Amjad Ali Khan and Lakshman and Meeta Pandit performed. His social obligations include the Madhavrao Scindia Foundation established in memory of his father and the Madhavrao Scindia Swasthya Sewa Mission which organises health camps throughout Madhya Pradesh. In addition, he is chairman of the board at the Scindia School, established by his great-grandfather to educate the sons of noblemen. And he serves on the boards of both the Madhav Institute of Technology and Sciences and the Samrat Ashok Technical Institute.
As president of the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association, Scindia has brought England to play against India in a one-day international at Indore and, in November last year, a One-Day International between Pakistan and India in Gwalior.
“Even when I was growing up, I was always conscious that Gwalior was never very far away,” says the 37-year-old Scindia. “All our holidays were spent in Gwalior and we never lost touch.” And, of course, politics was an intrinsic part of his life: he remembers hitting the campaign trail at the age of 13, instructing the tailor to stitch him a kurta-pyjama exactly like that of his father’s.
Yet, when it came to following his father’s footsteps, it was tragedy rather than free will that played a part. All it took was one phone call in September 2001 to change his life forever. Just back from Stanford University after completing an MBA programme, Scindia was at home in Mumbai when the phone rang with the news: his father was feared dead in an air crash en route to Kanpur where he had been scheduled to address a Congress rally. Scindia took the next flight out to Delhi, and nothing was ever the same again.
Weeks later, with his head still tonsured as a mark of his grief, Scindia took the plunge into politics at the invitation of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. It was at her house that he signed the form for primary membership of the party, under the watchful eyes of his mother, Madhavi Raje and Sonia Gandhi herself.
Although he’s supremely conscious of the role his father has played, and continues to play, in his life, you suspect that Jyotiraditya Scindia is not the kind of person to look back with regret.
Having taken the plunge, he’s done admirably well for himself. He won his first election from Guna in February 2002 with a stupendous margin of over 4.5 lakh votes. The Harvard and Stanford alumnus now routinely speaks in Parliament on a range of issues from the Budget to global warming and the condition of farmers. He actively participated in the debate on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and was picked by his party to respond on the nuclear deal to the BJP’s putative prime minister, LK Advani.
Those who knew his father well speak about the uncanny resemblance. Like his father, he thrusts his hand into his pocket while making a public speech. But, more important, he says, are the values he learned from his father: the idea that you give back to society and the idea that you are in politics to serve the people.
It’s early days yet for the new minister and time is not exactly on his side with a general election scheduled for 2009 and Assembly elections lined up in Madhya Pradesh, where he will be expected to exert his influence.
But if there is one thing Jyotiraditya Scindia is not shy of, it’s facing a challenge. For now, no prizes for guessing whether he will rise to this one.
(Namita Bhandare is the co-author with Vir Sanghvi of a biography on Madhavrao Scindia to be published later this year.)