The return of Amitabh Bachchan

Date: 29-08-1996 :: Pg: 12 :: Col: c

Cl: National News
By Harish Khare

The country needs to refute the Amitabh Bachchan brand of entrepreneurship which hinges on connections and obligations with political leaders.

JUST when the country was regrettably reconciling itself to Mr. H. D. Deve Gowda's apparent unwillingness to graduate out of a Karnataka-centered mindset, he astounded everyone by reaching out to the Shiv Sena chief, Mr. Bal Thackeray. The dinner meeting on August 20 has expectedly upset many calculations. While we can rely on the H. S. Surjeets, the Mulayam Singh Yadavs and other arbiters of secular correctness to explain away the Prime Minister's decision to break bread with Mr. Thackeray, not much thought has been given to the man who played the host that fateful evening in Bombay _ Mr. Amitabh Bachchan.

Perhaps Mr. Thackeray should be believed when he says that the tete-a-tete with the Prime Minister took place at the Bachchan residence primarily to avoid security inconvenience. The logical question that suggests itself is why this convenience could be facilitated only by Mr. Bachchan. May be the Commissioner of Bombay Police can enlighten us whether his force could make the requisite security arrangement for the Prime Minister to pay a condolence visit to Mr. Thackeray's residence; but, meanwhile the presence of two very unlikely political heavyweights at his dinner table has not hurt Mr. Bachchan's business image at all.

In all the hullabaloo that followed the dinner, unsolicited, and probably not unplanned, respectability came Mr. Bachchan's way, a kind of intangible asset for which any genuine businessman would have given his left arm. And it did not take Mr. Bachchan long to encash his new status. Within a week the megastar-turned business tycoon was addressing a joint press conference in Bangalore with the Chief Minister of Karnataka, unveiling his company's plans to host a Miss World pageant.

No one should grudge Mr. Bachchan his millions. Like any another businessman he is entitled to make his pile. But the problem is that he is not just another businessman. He has to be understood as a mascot of our recent times. During the 1980s he was an icon of a dream gone sour; in the 1990s he symbolised the flight of allegiance at the elite level when he chose to become a non- resident Indian; and, now, in the second half of the decades he struts around as a one-man corporation, recasting himself for a role in a quasi-globalised, market-oriented economy. A remarkable journey for a young man from a middle class family to the very pinnacle of corporate glory.

It is significant that Mr. Bachchan has not disclaimed his political ties; though he perhaps remains convinced of his earlier formulation of `politics as a cesspool'. That is why he deserves a close scrutiny. It was in fact an unhappy coincidence P{=3 that the day he played a dinner host to the Prime Minister and Mr. Thackeray, that very morning he had consciously marked his presence at Vir Bhumi, the samadhi of his friend, Rajiv Gandhi. Before Mr. Bachchan decided to stand by his friend by consenting to become a Congress candidate from the Allahabad Lok Sabha constituency in the 1984 election, he had captured the popular imagination as a film star. He was generally described as a legend, an actor who gave expression to a generation's anger and resentment against an insensitive and callous Establishment. Mr. Bachchan's angry young man was invincible, invariably having his way against the wicked and the cruel.

It was thus easy for him to make the transition to a political role in real life. But it was his close friendship with Rajiv Gandhi which invested that transition with an extraordinary meaning. After the 1984 elections the Congress had more than 400 Lok Sabha MPs; but Mr. Bachchan was someone special. There were _ and have been since then _ many stars who have made it in the political arena; but, the Sunil Dutts, the Raj Babbars, the Shatrugun Sinhas, and the Vyjayantimalas never symbolised the age in the manner Mr. Bachchan did.

He was a family friend of the young Prime Minister; he was also a key member of the Rajiv court. Indeed Mr. Bachchan was widely hailed as a source of style and elegance in the new dispensation. And he has remained a loyal friend of Rajiv's widow. He is still regarded as a family friend who has consistently _ and wisely _ counselled against Mrs. Sonia Gandhi getting her hands dirty in the cesspool of Congress politics.

But it was the friendship with Rajiv that gave Mr. Bachchan a political persona. Unlike an M. G. Ramachandaran or a Jayalalitha, he was not willing to submit to the grind of political apprenticeship. His relationship with Rajiv remained his only raison d'etre of the Bachchan phenomenon in Indian politics. Yet not much is known of Mr. Bachchan's contribution to policy making or political innovations during the Rajiv regime; what, unfortunately, is known is that his name became embroiled in the Bofors controversy. Rightly or wrongly he was seen as personifying the waywardness of the Rajiv regime. May be when a correct and intimate appraisal of the Rajiv years is undertaken, he could be held responsible for many an aberration.

As a loyal friend Rajiv Gandhi depleted considerably his regime's credibility and goodwill in defending Mr. Bachchan's fair name. Nonetheless the Bachchan presence in the Rajiv entourage transcended two individuals. The relationship came to symbolise a regime, reeking of cronyism. The Bofors controversy was only an unfortunate expression of a mindset that regarded India as a zamindari. After all, the Bachchans were at the centre of the beautiful set that delighted in a squandermania of the Festival of India variety. Behind the razzle-dazzle of the beautiful set, the urge to cut corners remained untamed. Crony capitalism, under the aegis of a command economy, entrenched itself.

After Rajiv's death this beautiful set found life in India a bit inconvenient. Crony capitalism had produced its own crisis; rather than disciplining and reining in the crooked impulses, the governing elites' answer was to seek an alliance with the crooked among the international financiers and speculators.

A man who made good in India, a man who became the mascot of the unity of `the Indian sentiment' in the memorable musical montage, Mile Sur Mera Tumahara, such a man found India stifling, cramping his style. Mr. Bachchan became an NRI. Perhaps an unwitting betrayal of a friend who had presided over the Indian State for nearly five years. Mr. Bachchan's preference for an NRI status, with all the implications of divided loyalties and allegiance, was representative of a hypocritical elite. Having first helped itself to public monies while all the time pretending to be doing a `public service', this elite cheerfully abandoned the motherland when things became ugly and frightening. The beautiful people simply could not stand the stench of Ayodhya, Surat, Ahmedabad and Bombay.

And now that the scene has changed, the people of style and elegance are back. Mr. Bachchan is also back. Not as an actor, not as a politician but as a self-confessed businessman. A few months ago, he had told an interviewer: ``With the change in the country and the economy and the boom in entertainment, I felt the need for a professional attitude towards the entertainment industry... I am no longer an individual but a corporate entity. They have invested money in me as a brand. They can recover the money through whatever the brand can do: act, sing, do a concert, endorse a product.''

Perhaps if the interview was to take place this week, Mr. Bachchan would have made an addition to the list of things he can do: host dinners for political leaders. Admittedly Mr. Bachchan today feels comfortable being a businessman. His evolution from a son of the eminent poet, Harbanshrai Bachchan and from a friend of Rajiv Gandhi into an unabashed entrepreneur, unfeelingly worshipping at the shrine of profits, is very much in conformity with these sordid times of greed and sleaze.

Like any other citizen, Mr. Bachchan was and is at liberty to engage in any vocation of his choice; but what invites public scrutiny is the continuing need for a cozy relationship with the political crowd. In fact, the country needs to refute this brand of entrepreneurship which hinges on connections and obligations with political leaders. After our encounter with scams after scams in the era of economic liberalisation, we must be prepared to demand that our so-called entrepreneurs exhibit genuine skills and innovativeness of an entrepreneur besides mollycoddling the Sukh Rams and the Ramlakhan Singh Yadavs of this world.