The Modern Day Maharajas
There was a time when we adored the Gayatri Devis of the world and their mere presence said it all. Blue blood was something that could not be transfused. The royals behaved as they should have. As if they owned kingdoms. Which some of them truly did. Their jewels were the real stuff. Not some silly Italian brand that keeps opening expensive stores in five-star hotels. Their progeny was happier playing polo and dating white women than representing some odd French brand of luggage. This was a time that has long passed us by.
The India of today has a different breed of royals. Men and women, who are commoners but like Edward, have become great pretenders. No longer are they accompanied by herds of caparisoned elephants. They instead ride in white ambassadors or fuel-guzzling SUVs. Their brand of blue blood is what they make of it. Not what flows in their veins? And like the erstwhile royals, they have control over different kinds of kingdoms. Some run riot in cricket, others rule Bollywood, some try and run India while a few, very few, emerge from the ranks of industry.
So who are these neo-royals and what makes them tick? Why does India treat them with deference when we know it's just a sham? Why do black cats and white ambassadors follow their every move? Why do television cameras record their every move: from bowel movements to that of the stock market?
Three things turn on India: and all three have power as the lowest common denominator. Cricket, Cinema and Politics.
- Lalit Modi: if you ever put on your television sets during a cricket match, there will be one dark gesticulator and that is Lalit Modi, the new King of Indian Cricket who rules with the benign approval of the Emperor, Sharad Pawar. Lalit Modi, like any king is aware of his power. He realises the hold that cricket has over millions in this country. He straddles every pitch like a Collosus and is found in front of the cameras after every match that India wins.
You will never see the King preside over losses. That would be asking for too much. His ascendancy to the throne is as mysterious as his business acumen but rumours have it that he was the maestro behind the coup, which dislodged the previous Emperor, Jagmohan Dalmiya!
- Rajeev Shukla: he is the evergreen royal: a kind of Prince Charles: always waiting to take over from anyone who is willing to give him that crown. He is the facilitator of celebrities in cricket. If you want Shahrukh Khan and Rahul Gandhi at a cricket match, get Rajeev Shukla to organise that. But the reason why I admire him is he also ensures India wins so that there is no major embarrassment.
You will observe the people who really matter, the players, are not going to find mention in this very limited list of royals. Theirs is to do and die while the King rules. Or pretends to. All of us commoners can hoot and whistle for the Dhonis of the world, but it is the neo-royals who actually call the shots. At least till the next bloodied BCCI elections, which often make the Mahabharata, read like a comic-book story!
- I have often been asked who the real Badshah of Bollywood is and I have no compunction in admitting it is Shahrukh Khan. For the simple reason his films sell. The other reasonably high profile family has everything else going for it except their current work.
Their family weddings are the subject of much debate: many a time it is better not to be invited to their homes since they work on the concept of reverse royalty. Which is they are so busy annexing more and more free farmland, that somewhere down the line they have lost the respect of the common man. So while their house is full of film trophies and Miss Indias, the soul is certainly missing.
- The Kapoor Khandan is certainly another set of Royals and every time we wish them away, another Kapoor rises like the Phoenix to tell us how wrong we are! Their love affairs are often with film and at times real royalty too; their parties are legendary and their focus is almost always on their work! Notwithstanding the on-off romantic interludes or their on-going love affair with various avatars of Bacchus, the family has shown the resilience of rock stars and to that end earned their share of royal status!
There is only one political family that is truly royal. And I am not talking about Amar Singh and his extended family! That family is the family of Gandhis though would it fair to call them neo-royals. They have lived in palatial homes even before we got our freedom. And unlike royalty, they have always remained relevant even when out of power. They too have their share of white ambassadors but it is not a display of crassness that we would associate with the Mayawatis and the Lalu Yadavs. Like true royalty, they know where their power rests and how far their reign runs as it were. They do things that royals would have loved to. They drive fast cars; they go-kart; they have girlfriends of Latin American origin and they get the best seats at cricket matches (thanks to Rajeev Shukla) which India wins. They rarely travel by commercial aircraft and often enough I have seen them never book a table in a restaurant in advance. However, if you were to go by size of jewels or the size of birthday crowds, then perhaps you would be willing to give Mayawati a shoo-in but even so, for me the real political royals are the Gandhis. In many ways, they have ensured India's love affair with the privileged and royalty and thank god for that.
Having said that, we must understand that India is at the crossroads of economic influence as also global political clout. Many would be tempted to treat Prakash Karat as royalty too but then we have exacting standards in this magazine!
The neo-royals will always be around. They have no privy purses to lose. They barely spend their own money and yet an entire nation is permanently grateful to them. God knows why.
But is precisely because we have no answers, must we deem them the neo-royals. If we knew what made them tick, then heck, we too would run to disrobe ourselves of our commoner status and embrace faux royalty.
After all, who doesn't want a little bit of blue blood?
More about Suhel Seth
Managing partner, Counselage