The winter session of Parliament ended on an ominous note, with Samajwadi Party’s film actor MP, Jaya Bachchan, putting a curse on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Your bad days are coming. I curse you. I curse you,” she shrieked after a stormy exchange with BJP MPs, and, unusually, with the Chair, which she virtually accused of being biased in favour of the ruling party.
Even for Jaya Bachchan, known for stirring up controversies with her outspoken ways, her reaction to the heckling from the treasury benches was over-the-top and certainly unbecoming of a senior parliamentarian.
Yet, can she be blamed when the polity around her is so bitterly divided, the standards of political discourse have crashed and government investigative agencies are being blatantly used for a political agenda every time a crucial election rolls around?
A Jittery BJP in UP
Jaya Bachchan’s outburst came on a day when her daughter-in-law, Aishwarya Rai, was being interrogated by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in a case that is at least eight years old but remained dormant till now, when the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections are looming and the BJP seems to be jittery about the rising challenge from the Samajwadi Party (SP).
It also came a few days after Income Tax authorities raided leaders known to be close to SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, in yet another instance of poll-related intimidation by the strong arm of the state.
There was undoubtedly a personal angle to Jaya Bachchan’s explosion. But if the powers-that-be thought that they could cow her down into submissive silence – like much of Bollywood – with an attack close to home, they clearly underestimated this feisty actor-turned-MP.
Unlike most actors who have graced the two Houses of Parliament over the decades, Jaya Bachchan is not one who believes in just being seen and not heard.
She speaks her mind on issues close to her heart, has stirred the pot on several occasions in the Rajya Sabha, and is a visible, active participant in the politics that permeates every session of Parliament.
Also in sharp contrast to most of her Bollywood compatriots, she is a regular fixture in the Central Hall, where she mingles easily with politicians of different hues as well as journalists who used to haunt this hub for casual chit-chat, till COVID-19 upturned the rules for media entry.
How Jaya Came to Mamata's Defence
In a way, Bachchan took on the mantle from co-actor Shabana Azmi, who ruffled feathers during her stint as an SP parliamentarian in the Rajya Sabha. Azmi’s tenure ended in 2003, much to the relief of the more conservative elements who disapproved of Bollywood celebrities muscling their way into the hallowed precincts of Parliament on the strength of their glamour quotient.
Unfortunately, for the fuddy-duddies, Bachchan was elected to the Rajya Sabha as an SP leader a year later in 2004 and has been going strong ever since to disprove their contention that glamour and politics don’t mix. While she made her mark with strong speeches on subjects like malnutrition and transgender rights, she is best remembered for the manner in which she took on the BJP on two occasions.
One was when Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee was threatened by BJP youth wing leader Yogesh Varshney and Bachchan jumped to her defence aggressively. “You are only interested in protecting cows while atrocities are being committed on women,” she fired at the BJP in Parliament.
More recently, she slammed BJP MP and actor Ravi Kishan in the House after he spoke about Bollywood’s ‘drug addiction’ problem during a discussion on late actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s mysterious death.
Attacking him for tarnishing the image of Bollywood by tarring the industry with one brush, she accused him of biting the hand that feeds him. “Jis thaali mein khate hain, usi mein chhed karte hain,” she declared.
The speech landed her in a war of words with Kishan but drew her widespread applause from the film industry, which appreciated her for speaking up for it. There was high praise from Azmi as well, who lauded Bachchan for her candour and punch.
Not Like Other Bollywood BJP MPs
Given this backdrop, it was naïve to expect Bachchan to stay quiet while her daughter-in-law was being harassed by the ED. But then, the BJP is used to its own tame MPs who hardly say a word or even turn up in Parliament.
Dharmendra, Sunny Deol, Hema Malini, Kirron Kher, and a host of others since the party started courting the film world as it rose to national prominence in 1991, have made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Some have registered long absences from sittings, like Dharmendra and Deol. Others like Hema Malini and Kirron Kher come to Parliament but hardly open their mouth.
Bachchan’s evolution as a politician was underlined when she outsmarted an old fox like Naresh Agarwal and was renominated to the Rajya Sabha by the SP in 2018. Agarwal’s term was ending, like Bachchan’s. And he lobbied hard and aggressively with SP patriarch Mulayam Singh for another stint.
Bachchan played a quiet hand and shrewdly calculated that the fulcrum of power was shifting generations, from Mulayam to son Akhilesh. As a mentor to Akhilesh’s wife Dimple during her first term as a Lok Sabha MP, and then as a loyal supporter of Akhilesh’s chief political advisor in those days, uncle Ram Gopal Yadav, Bachchan edged out Agarwal, much to everyone’s surprise. Angered and humiliated by his defeat at the hands of a woman, that too a film actor, Agarwal quit SP and joined the BJP. Unfortunately, for him, his new party did not reward him with a ride to the Upper House of Parliament.
Bachchan has also proved her political skills by the ease with which she has managed husband Amitabh Bachchan’s connections with Modi and her membership of SP. Amitabh Bachchan remains a brand ambassador for Gujarat Tourism and Narendra Modi’s signature Swachch Bharat Mission.
But that has not deterred Jaya Bachchan from doing her anti-BJP opposition politics. Apart from crossing swords with the BJP time and again in Parliament, she has also campaigned for Mamata Banerjee against the BJP in West Bengal.
Bachchan can perhaps be faulted for overreacting when she cursed the BJP at the end of the winter session. But unlike many other Bollywood stars, she respects her role as a Rajya Sabha MP by being an active parliamentarian.
(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)