Amitabh Bachchan As President of India

Even when the “world has become flat”, as Thomas L. Friedman claimed, professional groups tend to function like well-guarded islands of an unexplored world. Therefore, whenever a resident of one island wants to come to the other the tendency is to see the person with suspicion, disbelief and ridicule, something immortalized in the famous Bollywood song “Hamare angane mei thumara kya kaam hai”. It is only when the “invader” succeeds he is accepted that too grudgingly. If the “real estate tycoon” Donald Trump faced this in the past two years in his run up to the race for the white house his old time predecessor movie star Ronald Reagan faced it 30 years ago. Closer home in Indian movies all-time great super star Amitabh Bachchan underwent a similar experience in his home town of Allahabad more than three decades ago. However, destiny may see him back on a revisit to the island of politics as India prepares to look around for a new resident of Rashtrapati Bhavan whose present occupant is due to leave soon.

At present any suggestion to root for Amitabh Bachchan for President invites ridicule. However, it may not be so after a few weeks as we find that search for a candidate who can enlist wide support and a smooth election becomes extremely difficult. Though a President in India is only a constitutional head with no real power, neither the ruling BJP nor parties determined to unseat it from power in the coming Lok Sabha elections two years from now would like to risk an unfriendly occupant in RashtrapatiBhavan.

Amitabh Bachchan’s candidature can have the widest popular support. With a Sikh mother, a Bengali wife, a south Indian daughter-in-law and a Punjabi son-in-law he is a person with a pan India identity. Though a devout Hindu, his secular credentials are beyond doubt. His candidatre will be happily endorsed by minorities -Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. No major political party -ruling BJP, Opposition Congress or Communists will have any serious objection to his candidature.

Despite age, hostile propaganda from several quarters and charges of money making Amitabh continues to enjoy immense popularity among the masses, especially youth and large semi-urban sections of our society, His silver screen image of an average lower middle class Indian, a victim and fighter against an oppressive system, still holds appeal for a big number of people globally.

About 33 years ago, with no experience and no preparation, Amitabh made a wild card entry into Indian politics at the insistence of his childhood friend Rajiv Gandhi. In the Lok Sabha elections fought in 1984 the backdrop of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination; he convincingly defeated the redoubtable H.N. Bahuguna in his home constituency of Allahabad. Though he held no official position his impressive victory, immense popularity among the masses and close friendship with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made him India’s second most powerful man after the Prime Minister. And that was the reason for his undoing.

Interviewing him in the late 1985 for The Pioneer which I then edited I asked him what was the single biggest factor behind his unprecedented success in life, Amitabh said when he does a job he does it not with 100 per cent sincerity but with 200 per cent sincerity. He plunged into politics with his characteristic sincerity. Secure in the belief that with Allahabad electorate firmly behind him and the Prime Minister a close friend he need to bother only about his new found responsibilities as Member of Parliament, Amitabh started working in right earnest with a dedicated band of young followers and a big number of supporters. What he did not know was that sincerity and hard work did not necessarily pay in the dirty game of politics and intrigue has been an essential part of power politics since time immemorial.

Opposition to Amitabh started even before he landed in Allahabad to file his nomination papers. And this opposition was not from Opposition parties but from ambitious leaders of his own party who saw in him as a challenge to their political ambitions. Raja Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who was to backstab Rajiv Gandhi to become the Prime Minister later, commented: “Now dancers and singers will run the country.” Banners put up in the city by unknown people said “Amitabhji is welcome but he should not bring Rekha with him “indirectly suggested to the traditional voters of Allahabad that Amitabh had an extra marital affair.

What happened between January 1985 and July 1987 when Amitabh resigned his Allahabad seat and said good bye to politics is a story which has neverbeen told. But everybody knows the end of it. Rajiv and Amitabh were implicated in Bofors gun scandal case; differences were created between the two childhood friends and their families; after Amitabh left politics his enemies turned on Rajiv Gandhi and once darling of Indian masses and the Congress leader, who had the highest ever majority in the Lok sabha, had to spend the remaining two years of his prime ministership in political disgrace in the shadow of the Bofors scandal; a dirty campaign against Sonia Gandhi for being a foreign lady was launched; Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress failed to get a majority in 1989 Lok Sabha elections; though still the leader of the biggest party in Parliament he refused to head a coalition to become the prime Minister; V.P. Singh fulfilled his lifelong ambition to be the prime Minister though he had to leave the job soon after in disgrace of the anti-Mandal agitation and Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991 when he was on the comeback trail.

The only party to gain in this political confusion was the BJP whose bench strength went from two in 1984 elections to 86 after the 1989 elections. Its vitriolic campaign against Rajiv, Sonia Gandhi and everyone and everything that had to do with Nehru legacy, brought it to the centre stage of Indian politics and today it rules at the Centre and in 15 states and the once powerful Congress is nowhere. What had been the shape of Indian politics had there been no Bofors, Amitabh Bachchan had stated in politics and Rajiv Gandhi had not been assassinated is difficult to presume today. But then politics is always a game of probabilities and uncertainties.

It is typical of Indian politics that if Amitabh Bachchan is to run for the President, as looks unlikely today, his biggest support, nay sponsorship will come from the BJP. And this will not be because like V.P. Singh and Arun Nehru he backstabbed Rajiv Gandhi. Amitabh stood with Rajiv as long as he could but when he could not he left politics saying that it was not his cup of tea. He never said anything against Rajiv though his wife Jaya and mother Taeji always felt that Rajiv did not do enough to defend Amitabh in the Bofors case. If BJP supports Amitabh for president it will be to broaden its support base and to get into the traditional backdrop of Indian politics, sans Gandhi and Nehru, which emerged during the freedom struggle and is still important for bonding with historical continuity which BJP so desperately seeks.

Even if BJP were to decide on fielding Amitabh the big question is will Amitabh agree? Those of us who have seen a bit of Amitabhin public life think that he will be highly reluctant but could be open to persuasion – not because of the glamour of the high office but because he will take it as his final vindication from all the political sins that he never committed.

“Success is a dirty word in this country”, a bitter Amitabh told some of us during the height of the Bofors scandal campaign and the media trial on it by V.P. Singh and his many friends in the media. If he enters the portals of the majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan he may have to revise his opinion.

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