There’s something about royalty that excites the popular mind. Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej reigned from 1946 to 2016 to become the world’s longest reigning monarch; he was so popular that when he died, Thais wept. Japan’s ruling Emperor Akihito, the 125th in history’s longest royal line (beginning from 660 BCE), has got permission from Parliament to abdicate by 2020 because, at 83, he says he is too old. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth is 91 and there isn’t a beep from Buckingham Palace about her being too old.
In Thailand and Japan, the monarchy is spectacularly apolitical. In Britain, too, the royals have no role in policy decisions. Yet, the British royal family could well become a tactical card in politics if a snap election is held as is likely. The Labour Party, according to current gossip, may take a stand against the heir apparent, Prince Charles, and propose that Charles’ son William be declared the next in line.
That will of course be a break in convention in convention-loving Britain. But it will win considerable backing from the common man because Charles is widely disliked. Bhumibol’s son Vajiralongkorn, the current King of Thailand, is also disliked. But that won’t touch him. Thai Kings are seldom seen in public, their movements are unknown, there is no public reporting of their activities and there is a tradition of lese-majeste which makes any kind of irreverence against the monarch a punishable offence.
In the free-for-all system of British democracy, taking potshots at Charles is a parlour game. And he is a favourite target primarily because of his affair with the grand-motherly Camilla before and during his marriage with the beautiful and widely admired Princess Diana. After Diana’s death (in a road accident that continues to raise scary interpretations), Charles married his mistress, giving his unpopularity a universal dimension.
Elizabeth’s own air of detachment at the time of Princess Diana’s funeral had attracted criticism. But she has managed to rise above controversies by her queenly demeanour and her sense of decorum. With the eccentric and embarrassingly undiplomatic Prince Philip as husband, it is no mean achievement for Queen Elizabeth to have retained the dignity of the British throne all these years. No one knows whether her own opinion is in favour of her son or grandson succeeding her. But the politicians would like to make it a topic of public debate, knowing that grandson William will influence voters while son Charles will drive them away.
How grand and unchallenged, by comparison, was the era of royal princes in India. There were 565 of them, the British massaging their ego in ways that ranged from graded gun salutes to titular classification into Rajas and Maharajas. Some of the rulers were sophisticates, some crude. Many were adorned by necklaces of gold, diamonds and pearls, some led ascetic lives. Maharaja Jai Singh of Alwar felt insulted when the Rolls Royce company in London took him for a common Indian and made fun of him. He took revenge by using half a dozen Rolls Royce cars to transport his city’s waste. The Wadiyars of Mysore faced financial problems after the abolition of privy purse, but popular regard for them continued.
The wealthiest of them all was also the messiest. The Nizam of Hyderabad was considered the richest man in the world. But where all his money has gone remains a mystery. What is known is that a day before India’s military action against Hyderabad in 1948 (following the Nizam’s refusal to join India), one million pounds were transferred to a British bank. That money is claimed by India, Pakistan and the Nizam’s heirs — which means the British can go on profiting from the money.
But of course no one was more
glamorous, more legendary than the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, GBE. He got Cartier of Paris to turn a trunkful of diamonds and other precious gems into a necklace, the Patiala Necklace, costing $25 million in those days. (The Patiala Peg is a measure of largeness by which bars across India honour the Maharaja). A 1,400-piece dinner set made of gold and silver, 40-plus Rolls Royces, 88 children from five formal wives, a personal harem of 350 women, a whole chicken at formal dinners followed by two whole chickens after the guests had left, Bhupinder Singh finally died of boredom.Decadent days? Sure. But preferable to the days when people are lynched to death in public and the killers are hailed as patriots.