Shah Rukh Khan: The reincarnation of India's Pushtun hero


Is he the Gandhis' crowd-puller?

Of the handful of men who led the struggle for India’s independence, the most tragic and least known is Abdul Ghaffar Khan, commonly known as Badshah Khan, the uncrowned king.

Ghaffar Khan (1890 – 1988) was son of a tribal chief of the Pashtun (Pathan) people at the India/Afghanistan border. He gained his title for his tireless work with the many tribes at his native Northwest Frontier Province, once a buffer zone of the British Raj against Russia and now the smallest of Pakistan’s four provinces.

Ghaffar Khan formed a long and deep friendship with Mahatma Gandhi. The Gandhi-Badshah relationship lasted decades and contributed much to the independence movement. Graffar Khan eventually moved to the newly created Pakistan, suffered many arrests and died under house arrest, outlasting all his peers in his longevity.

Nearly 60 years after the death of Gandhi, a new Gandhi/Badshah relationship is emerging in Indian politics. It was initiated by Gandhi’s spiritual—though not blood—heir, India’s ruling Gandhi family, who descended from Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister (whose daughter Indira married a man who shared the surname as the father of the nation). Badshah, in this incident, is Shah Rukh Khan, who is no revolutionary leader, unless one counted the disturbance he created in Bollywood as a revolution.

The Gandhi family always courts famous actors and is courted by them. Rajiv Gandhi, assassinated son of Indira and his Italian-born wife Sonia had been close to Amitabh Bachchan until a scandal drove a rift between them. Bachchan is now firmly ensconced in the opposite camp and the Gandhis need another actor to match the superstar’s allure to win votes.

They found their man in Shah Rukh Khan. SRK is commonly known as the Badshah of Bollywood, a title endorsed even by Bachchan himself. He was once a close friend of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, two time Prime Minister of India and a leader of the Gandhis’ deadly enemy, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But he fell under the charm, not to mention the immense influence of Priyanka Gandhi. Priyanka and her husband Robert Vadra have become fast friends of SRK, visiting him on his film sets (of the movie Paheli), dining in his house in Mumbai and in the house of his in-laws in Delhi. They also invited him on a much publicised visit to 10 Janpath, the official residence of the leader of the Congress party, in other words, that of the Gandhi clan. SRK’s comment, after the visit, that he was “mesmerised by Sonia Gandhi’s grace as a lady and mother” was widely quoted in India.

Soon the Badshah-Gandhi relationship could pay dividends for the Congress Party. Priyanka, the only Gandhi not in politics, could soon be contesting in Uttar Pradesh. She will come up against Amitabh Bachchan, who is a staunch friend of Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party and goodwill ambassador of the state. Both Bachchan and Yadav were former friends and now bitter enemies of the Gandhis. Priyanka would need some heavy firepower to counter Bachchan’s draw. No prize guessing who she will mobilise to help her gain votes come the next election.


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March 2007


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

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