A legend in his lifetime, for many of the new generation watching his press conference last week, terming the clean chit to him as too little too late, the political avatar of the actor was a forgotten memory or fable lost in time.
Lets begin with what we all know. Bachchan and Rajiv Gandhi grew up together as family friends. As boys, they hung-out together and shared each other's interests and pursuits. There is a hilarious story about a struggling Bachchan meeting comic actor Mehmood for a role. He had been accompanied by Gandhi for this meeting. Mehmood gave the lanky, intense Bachchan the short shrift, but suggested that his fair and handsome friend could well have a career in films. Both had a good laugh and went their separate ways. Rajiv to England to study, Bachchan to Mumbai to struggle in the film industry. Bachchan soon became famous as the angry young man, channeling the nations frustrations against the system in films like Zanjeer and Deewar. In 1983, during the shoot of the film Coolie he was seriously wounded during a stunt. The nation prayed and Bachchan fought back. In 1984, however, his friends mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was not so lucky, and Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister soon after.
Bachchan was soon involved with Rajivs political life and, when elections were declared in 1985, decided to contest from Allahabad, his fathers hometown. He beat the colossus Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna to become a member of Parliament and the Indian version of Camelot, the charmed circle of Rajiv and his friends. His move to Delhi entailed renting a house in Vasant Vihar, abjuring official accommodation, admitting his children to nearby Modern School, and making frequent trips to Allahabad. Unlike subsequent actor/politicians, he refused films, and left a legacy of the superb Naini bridge connecting the rest of India to the eastern part of the country. People mistakenly attribute the Naini bridge to VP Singh, it was commissioned when Amitabh Bachchan was MP, said a close aide of Bachchans.
Bachchan also got a polyester plant sanctioned for Allahabad, to be set up by Vijaypat Singhania. Those were the days of the license-quota raj, so the sanctions came through slowly, now its been bought over by Reliance, he added. His parliamentary interventions consisted of issues related to Uttar Pradesh and, not surprisingly, film taxation and excise duties on the import of raw stock. He spoke selectively and only on subjects of his interest.
Then came Bofors. As Camelot crumbled, so did the relationship between Bachchan and Rajiv Gandhi. An embattled Gandhi appeared less than eager or able to defend his friend against attacks by the Opposition over the Bofors scam. When a story detailing an alleged property holding by Ajitabh Bachchan (his brother) surfaced in the media, Amitabh Bachchan decided to hang up his political chappals. He drove straight to Rajiv Gandhis residence, tendered his resignation and left Delhi the same evening. Even close friends came to know of his decision the next morning when he called them for a meeting in Bangalore.
The sense of betrayal felt by Bachchan has perhaps informed his future relationship with the political class. When he was in financial dire straits over the losses sustained by AB Corp, Amar Singh and the Sahara group bailed him out. He got close to the Samajwadi Party, with his wife serving on the board of Sahara TV and as a Rajya Sabha MP from the party. Bachchan himself kept away from Parliament, not even making the trip to watch his wife take oath. While his friendship with Amar Singh was very visible to the media, Singhs fall from grace in the Samajwadi Party was also taken in stride. Loyalty was to be tempered with self interest. So Jaya Bachchan is back in the Rajya Sabha on a Samajwadi Party ticket, and Bachchan, himself a brand ambassador for Gujarat, ruled for nearly two decades by the BJP, which was at the forefront of the Bofors attacks.
Bofors was a coming of age in many ways both for Bachchan and Gandhi. Neither was ever the same nave optimist. Bachchan has, however, outlasted Bofors and has managed to find closure, even if he the only one to have done so.