Amitabh for President?


Bollywood's biggest name may become India's Ronald Reagan, if Amar Singh has his way.

Since it attained independence nearly 60 years ago, India has had 11 presidents. Not many remember their names, not even children who had them drummed into their heads in school. By and large India’s presidents are colourless men that evoke little notice or excitement. This could soon change.

In January Amar Singh, leader of the opposition Samajwadi Party, dropped a bombshell. The current president, Abdul Kalam, is stepping down this year. A replacement is needed. Why not Amitabh Bachchan, Singh suggested?

Bachchan is Singh’s good friend. He is also India’s most successful actor, son of a famous poet and patriarch of the first family of Bollywood, the India film industry based in Bombay (Mumbai). At 64, Bachchan is bearded, dignified and known not only throughout India but internationally, his fame spreading along with the growing popularity of Indian movies all over the world. In a resurgent India, Bachchan’s standing makes him the perfect choice for the next president.

That, at least, is the opinion of Amar Singh. A wily old fox, Singh’s suggestion has generated huge interest in the would-be Bachchan presidency among the one billion people in India. Some of it has rubbed off on him and his party, and could help Samajwadi gain some headway in the upcoming general election.

Critics have called Singh’s proposal “a cheap trick” designed to help The Big B (Bachchan’s nickname) overtake his archrival Shah Rukh Khan in movie and television ratings. SRK, as he is popularly known, is the only actor capable of matching or surpassing Bachchan’s achievements. He has gone head to head with Bachchan not only in movies but also in endorsements (he took two lucrative deals from Bachchan) and television (where he succeeded Bachchan as host in the popular show KBC "Kaun Banega Crorepati or "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?").

Clashes between the two men, with an age gap of 22 years (SRK is 42), are legendary. It began in 2004 when SRK got into a quarrel with Amar Singh over seating arrangements for Bachchan in an awards event in Dubai. Three years on, it is war on all fronts, and each drawing into his own camp not only the top people in India’s entertainment circles but also those in business and politics. Among SRK’s most ardent supporters are members of the Gandhi family which ruled India for the greater part of the past 60 years. Its senior member, Sonia Gandhi, now runs the country in all but name through the Congress party. Hitting SRK through the political front is tantamount to delivering a blow to the Gandhis. That, more than anything else, explains why Amar Singh is putting Bachchan up for what is largely a ceremonial post with little real power.

Bachchan is more than ready to strike out at the Gandhis.

The actor was once a close friend of Rajiv Gandhi, late husband of Sonia and a former prime minister of India. He was persuaded by Rajiv to become a member of parliament in 1984, only to resign in disgrace three years later after he was found embroiled in the Bofors arms scandal that still haunts the Gandhi family today. Years later, after Rajiv’s death, Bachchan’s company ABCL was in deep financial trouble. He sought help from Sonia who (according to Bachchan) washed her hands off him. The only assistance came from Amar Singh. After that Bachchan had an open break with Sonia and the Congress party and crossed over to Samajwadi. His wife Jaya, a MP of the Samajwadi party, has spoken bitterly about how the Gandhis brought her husband into politics only to leave him “midways”. To rub salt into the wound, the Gandhis have begun courting SRK openly just at a time when Bachchan is fighting a desperate rearguard action against the younger man’s encroachment into his territory. Fair or otherwise, it has been said many times that the Gandhis’ patronage has helped SRK to gain an upper hand against Bachchan.

Revenge is a common theme in Indian movies, where the hero always triumphs over the villains. Bachchan has played this role numerous times, the most famous of which is Shanenshah, a 1988 film loosely based on Batman in which he put on a costume to punish evildoers. 

In real life, however, Bachchan has little chance of getting back at the immensely powerful Gandhis, until Amar Singh floated the idea of his presidency.

The presidency of India is open to just about any citizen over 35, who is sane and without a criminal record. Election of the candidates is decided by secret ballots by members of the two houses of parliament and those of the state assemblies. In the first half century of India’s history, it was usually the trade unionists or those involved in the independence movement who were hauled out by the big political parties to be their puppet presidents. Sometimes, however, the president can display a mind of his own against the will of his puppeteer. Abdul Kalam, much to Sonia Gandhi’s disgust, has gone against the will of the Congress party on several occasions. Sonia is now looking for another puppet to take Kalam’s place when the latter’s five-year term expires later this year.

Barring the fact that Congress suffers an election upset, nothing can stop Sonia putting her man in the presidential palace—nothing, that is, unless Bachchan throws his hat into the ring for the same job.

Samajwadi controls the state of Andhra Pradesh but it is weak in Delhi. Bachchan, however, is an icon. Literally millions grew up watching him on the silver screen and the small screen. He has immense draw among the teeming masses. The combined firepower of Samajwadi and Bachchan give them a fighting chance of wresting the presidency away from Congress, especially if Sonia is to put another faceless man up for candidacy. If Bachchan is serious about running, a joke in Delhi goes, the best defense Sonia can put up would be to nominate Shah Rukh Khan as her candidate so that the Bachchan-SKR fight can then be carried on in the political arena. Don’t laugh, stranger things have happened in India’s politics.


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First Published: 
March 2007

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lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

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