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Britain’s Royalty, India’s Royalty: A Comparison

What can India learn from Britain’s William and Kate and the House of Windsor? We have our own “royals.”

April 17, 2016

What can India learn from Britain’s William and Kate and the House of Windsor? We have our own “royals.”

Everyone loves a royal – especially a British royal, even cynics who claim to disdain them. The British royal family has 18 members – all of them headed by Queen Elizabeth who turns 90 next week.

Each royal has public duties. Taken together, the family makes itself available for a mindboggling 240 events every month – or 8 a day, year in and year out. That is a burden even the most hardened socialite would wilt under.

The British royals are an especially diligent lot possibly because they draw their legitimacy not from a divine right to rule but from Parliament which contracted them for the purpose in 1701.

They are funded from estates allotted to them and an annual Sovereign grant of around 35 million British pounds. That is well over ten times what we Indians spend on the office of the President of India.

To their credit, the British royals have changed with the times. The stiff upper lip is going. Princess Diana’s inimitable compassion and common touch are now the norm.

More significantly, male primogeniture — the gender insensitive British royal practice, whereby a male child always got precedence in succession — was ended in 2013 by an Act of the British Parliament.

The forgotten royals

In comparison, Indian royals somehow never managed to make the transition from being rulers to becoming representatives of the new Indian state. They failed to brand themselves for the new India.

Discredited as remote, effete relics and toadies of colonialism, independent India sought and obtained their surrender to the sovereignty of the India State in 1949.

In 1971, the Indian Parliament abolished their titles and privy purses – pensions to which the erstwhile royals were contractually entitled under the 1949 settlement.

Very few Indian royals managed to remain politically relevant. The Scindias of Gwalior stand out as exceptions who straddle the two main national political parties.

Jammu and Kashmir royals and currently the Patiala royals also remain politically alive.

But the other significant royals – think Hyderabad, Mysore, Baroda, Bhopal, Indore, Udaipur, Travancore, Kota, Bharatpur, Bikaner, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Cochin — have faded from public memory and affection.

Elsewhere in South Asia, Bhutan’s royals stand out as proactive modernizers, British style. Nepal royals, in contrast, have succumbed to democracy’s march, much as in India.

The “new royals”

You can abolish a royal by fiat, but you can’t legislate royalty away. If you destroy traditional elites, new elites spring up, because they serve a social purpose, as glue, to bind society together, even in a democratic polity.

The United States has the Kennedys and the Bush family. In India, the Nehru-Gandhi family endures and inheriting a political legacy is pervasive.

In 2011, 29% of the members of India’s national parliament were from established political families. But it is debatable whether these “political royals” have the affection of the people.

India’s real royals today are movie stars, cricketers and the owners of big businesses. All of them are fiercely competitive and determined to succeed against all odds.

These “new royals” inhabit an interlocking and sometimes toxic world of business, cricket and movies.

Britain’s William and Kate – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, in line to succeed to the British throne — are of this generation of competitive royals.

It is not surprising then that they chose to schmooze with the new royals of Mumbai in their search for creating “new” Indian memories on their recent visit.

Neanderthal Delhi

Tragically however, Mumbai’s mojo has yet to infuse Delhi, where the mindset remains near colonial. Here, the eyeballs you may draw and the advertising revenue riding on you or the name recognition you command don’t matter.

If you did not become a bureaucrat by age 25 and if you are not in politics, it is unlikely that the Indian government will ever select you to serve the nation in a representational position – as Governor of an Indian state or as an Ambassador overseas.

As a result, the wealth of available talent — academic, artistic, scientific, professional and entrepreneurial — is ignored.

Is it surprising then that government is so stiflingly insular and non-competitive, quite out of keeping with the mood of the nation?

Transparency is yet to be institutionalized. The website of the British monarchy is at pains to inform you how much is spent on the Royal Family. In contrast, the website of the office of India’s President is silent on this information.

Since Parliament does not vote to approve these expenses, numbers are hard to come by. President Mukherjee has done more than most to open up the premises. But the fact remains that India’s institutional culture is forbidding.

The British use their royals very effectively for showing the flag. Why shouldn’t we Indians do something similar and give Governorships and Ambassadorial assignments to those who distinguish themselves in real life and wish to step out temporarily to serve the nation directly – rather than to our version of “apparatchiks” only?

You would be surprised at the power of incentives to change things around.


If you destroy traditional elites like monarchs, new elites spring up to bind society together.

Most of India's many pre-independence royals never found a place for themselves in the new Republic.

India's real royals today are movie stars, cricketers and the owners of big businesses.

The United States has the Kennedys and the Bush family. In India, the Nehru-Gandhi family endures.