Congress To SP To BJP: The Long Tale of "Non-Political" Bachchan Caught in the Winds Of Panama
NEW DELHI: Mega-star Amitabh Bachchan seems to have controversy attached to his Achilles heels, it dogs him periodically, and regularly. Just within three years of what he and wife Jaya Bachchan expressed great relief about, a vindication of sorts from retired Swedish investigator Sten Lindstrom in the Bofors case, Bachchan is back again in the Panama papers that confirm his links with four off shore shipping firms set up in 1993.
“Controversy has the speediest vehicles .. and the belief in them, with the conveyance of the trillions of content through delicate fibres under the sea, or above through the satellited skies, an unstoppable desert storm that blinds not just the eyes of vision, but destroys the very foundation of civility and space…” Bachchan wrote in his blog in response to Lindstroms media interview a couple of years ago saying that there was no evidence with him linking the movie star to Bofors.
In rather melodramatic words the mega star wrote, ““When it is disclosed, they ask me for my reaction ! What reaction may I give… What does one say… Who does one say it to… Can they wipe away the pain of 25 years… Will they be able to diminish the tainted colour of defamation…”
But the relief, unfortunately, did not last long as the Panama papers have brought the 70 plus actor back into the stormy limelights. As revealed by the records of the international law firm Mossack Fonseca, and reported in india by the Indian Express, the four companies in which Bachchan was appointed director were all registered in tax havens---one in the British Virgin islands and three in the Bahamas in November 1993. As the report noted, “The authorised capital of these companies — Sea Bulk Shipping Company Ltd (BVI), Lady Shipping Ltd, Treasure Shipping Ltd and Tramp Shipping Ltd (Bahamas) — ranged between a modest $5,000-50,000 but they traded in ships worth millions of dollars.”
Bachchan, moved out from the creative world into politics and business, in the 1980’s with the first manifestation for the public at large being his decision to contest the Lok Sabha elections in 1984 on the Congress ticket. What many did not know at the time was the close relations between Bachchan and Rajiv Gandhi, with their mothers being extremely close. In fact when Sonia Gandhi came to India to marry Rajiv Gandhi, she stayed for a few weeks with the Bachchan family.
The movie star won the elections, and was given a big bungalow in Lutyens Delhi. And at that time his unofficial manager was Nationalist Congress Party leader D.P.Tripathi in Delhi. Bachchan was one of the few persons given direct access to the Prime Ministers house, was a regular visitor and advisor, and involved in decisions taken by Rajiv Gandhi in those initially heady days. The proximity was such that when the first report of kickbacks paid by the Indian government in the famous Bofors defence deal broke on the Swedish radio, some of the dirt attached itself to Bachchans coat tails. Then Finance Minister V.P.Singh was convinced that the film star was involved in the deal, and had received some percentage of the kickbacks.
Bachchan is said to have played a major role in convincing PM Rajiv Gandhi to shift Singh out of the Finance Ministry. At that time the Finance Ministry had taken on a role independent of the government under Singh with bureaucrats like Vinod Pande, Bhure Lal and others given a permanent green signal by the Minister (who went on to become Prime Minister later) to act against corporate corruption. Singh had latched on to the file for the Bofors howitzer deal and was not given the clearance required from the Finance Ministry. He told this reporter much later that he had been asked for the file to be sent to the PMO by different sources but had resisted. Finally the Prime Minister called him directly for the file. Singh sent it to him with all the objections noted in writing. The file, he said, never came back to him.
Singh has himself recorded Bachchan’s role in his shift from Finance to the Defence Ministry in his book Manzil Se Jyada Safar. Here he said, “"We heard that Amitabh Bachchan landed there (Andaman and Nicobar islands where the then PM was visiting) and poisoned Rajiv Gandhi's ears. The decision to remove me from the finance ministry was taken there only.”
Bachchan fought the case in the courts abroad and won, a victory that he and his wife Jaya exulted in publicly. However, at home he could not shake off the perception that eventually led to serious differences with Rajiv Gandhi and eventually his resignation from the Lok Sabha in 1987. Interestingly, a reason for the concern in the Rajiv Gandhi-Bachchan camp were reports that Singh’s formidable bureaucrats had hired a US agency Fairfax to enquire into the charges of corruption, and more specifically into assets allegedly held by the powerful actor as well as his brother Ajitabh abroad. It is a matter of public record of course that Ajitabh Bachchan, then very close to his brother and subsequently estranged, had tried to settle in Switzerland around that time.Reports that he had purchased a villa in that country made the rounds at the time, leading to widespread speculation---never confirmed---that he had received the money for his brother.
In fact Singh reported in his book that Bachchan’s role in effecting his shift from Finace to the Defence Ministry was proven, “from the fact that after I was shifted to the defence ministry, Rajiv Gandhi called me one day and asked whether I had hired an investigative agency, Fairfax, which would gather information about the properties of some persons who are based in Europe. I told him that I had no idea and he should ask Bhure Lal, director, Enforcement. It would not be fair on my part as defence minister to ask for information from a director in the finance ministry. I know that Rajiv Gandhi had called Bhure Lal and had a 35-minute meeting with him. Rajiv Gandhi appeared satisfied with the meeting, but a few days after that at 11 pm Bhure Lal was shifted from the enforcement directorate. Bhure Lal had made it clear to the then Prime Minister that no investigative agency was hired in Europe.”
After Rajiv Gandhi reportedly succumbed to pressure to drop Bachchan from the Allahabad fray, relations between two muddied, irreversibly. And more so after the late Prime Minister’s assassination with both sides keeping quiet about the differences, but maintaining a wide distance. Amitabh Bachchan said in an interview then,"We meet them sometimes at public functions. There is no anger, no angst. We're still pretty normal." In 2004 wife Jaya Bachchan broke the silence while campaigning for the Samajwadi party in Uttar Pradesh where she said that the Gandhi family had “betrayed” her husband. Rahul Gandhi retorted by terming this as a “pack of lies”. This was quickly nipped by both families, however, with the relationship going back to the old hostile silence.
Bachchan grew close to Samajwadi Man Friday at the time Amar Singh who introduced him to Mulayam Singh Yadav. Bachchan, despite his avowed aversion to politics, became very much part of the Samajwadi political scene along with wife Jaya who were “very close” to Amar Singh and Yadav for several years. As well as to their “close friend” Sahara’s Subrata Roy who has been in jail since 2014 for his failure to return Rs 24,000 crores to investors. Amar Singh fell out with Mulayam Singh, the Bachchans continued to support the latter, and to cut a story short all finally fell out with each other.
From there Bachchan moved into the BJP, or more specifically Prime Minister Narendra Modi fold. He became the Ambassador for Gujarat, advertising the state and earning considerable flak from those concerned about the 2002 violence and the state government’s record on this front. This did not phase Bachchan whose face became synonymous with that of Gujarat, a service that has stood him in good stead now in that he has taken over from Aamir Khan---whose comments about intolerance were not tolerated by the central government---to become the Incredible India Ambassador for the government in a decision taken directly by the Prime Ministers Office.
So what now? Perhaps prophetically Bachchan said in an interview to Forbes India, “Anything can happen to me just now and I could lose everything. I think the eventuality of that should never be forgotten.”
And again, “There’s always going to be that fear, that anxiety that you may get back into that situation which was horrendous and most embarrassing. So I guess you just continue working to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
Well it has happened. So the first question then for the government to answer, more so after the Prime Minister has set up a full fledged probe, will Amitabh Bachchan continue to represent Incredible India as her Ambassador?
(Photograph: Close friends. Amitabh Bachan with Rajiv Gandhi after Indira Gandhi was assassinated)