"I am continuously being sidelined by a set of few leaders of Bihar, who feel uneasy because of my popularity and sway over masses" - Shatrughan Sinha, BJP MP
Beer Chand Patel Road in Patna is home to state offices of almost all political parties in Bihar—from the ruling Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal to the Nationalist Congress Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress, however, has its office at Sadakat Ashram on the banks of the Ganga—once home to Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India.
With the Bihar assembly polls round the corner, one would think these party offices would be the hub of political activity. Most of the buzz, however, is coming from Kadamkuan locality, just 2km away. For here resides Patna Sahib MP Shatrughan Sinha, who belongs to the BJP. Though one of his famous dialogues is “Khamosh!”, mum's not the word for this actor-politician.
Sinha, thanks to his sound bites, has been making headlines every other day, hurting his own party’s high-voltage election campaign. Sample this: He met Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and said he was one of the best chief ministers in India—the same day Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed his first political rally in Muzaffarpur. A few days later, he met Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and praised his style of governance. He also expressed his unhappiness over the suspension of 25 Congress members of the Lok Sabha. During an event in Mumbai, the former health minister said: “The Union health ministry is not making sufficient efforts to prevent ailments.”
A BJP leader in Bihar said, “He is giving rivals a chance [to attack the BJP] every day and on every occasion, whenever there is a big BJP event.” While BJP leaders claimed that Sinha desperately wanted to become Union minister, Sinha said, “I already have kad [height] and had a pad [post]. This is purely a matter of principle and respect.”
So, why the sudden outbursts? In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK at the Mithila suite of Hotel Maurya—the only five-star hotel in Patna—Sinha said: “I am continuously being sidelined by a set of few leaders in Bihar, who feel uneasy because of my popularity and sway over the masses. I am not even a member of the party’s state election committee, campaign committee or core committee. I am not invited to any party function or if invited, the invitation is given at the eleventh hour so that I don't reach there.” He said those leaders were trying to create a rift between him and the national leadership. “I would like to explain before the Central leadership how inefficient and incompetent these leaders are,” he said.
When he asked BJP leader Sushil Modi why Sinha's photograph was missing from banners and posters, the former deputy chief minister told him that workers put up the banners and the party had nothing to do with it. “Arre Modiji, who are you fooling? Am I a kid?” Sinha retorted.
The BJP, however, has not cracked its whip yet. It could be because it is well aware of Sinha's popularity among Biharis, which earned him the moniker 'Bihari babu'. He is seen as a success story, an epitome of Bihari grit and pride. Even though Sinha does not have a huge support base comparable to RJD leader Lalu Prasad or Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan's, the BJP knows he has the potential to spoil his own party's chances. Social worker Vishnu Rajgarhia said Sinha had emerged as a brand ambassador of Bihar. Nitish Kumar called him the “pride of Bihar” and named the Government College of Health and Physical Education after his father, B.P. Sinha. JD(U) general secretary Naveen Kumar Arya said: “Shatrughan definitely is the pride of Bihar.”
Sinha is not a leader in the traditional sense; he is one of the 'notables' on whose popularity the BJP made inroads to places where it was not welcomed earlier. Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot calls this party building strategy as 'expansion through notables'. Then, there is the organisational strategy, also called the 'sangathanist' strategy, via the RSS cadre.
The first film star to join the BJP in the early 1980s—when the party had only two Lok Sabha members—Sinha was inspired by Jayaprakash Narayan, who lived in the same Kadamkuan locality. A born rebel, he is the youngest among four siblings; two of his brothers are scientists and one is a doctor in the US.
Sinha's adversaries in the party don’t want to rate him more than a film star and a crowd-puller. But he said that he had risen in the party from the heat and dust of the last three decades. “In the 2009 polls, I addressed the highest number of rallies for the BJP,” he said. “In the two-month-long campaign, the party kept a fleet of aircraft and choppers to fly me from north to south and west to east.” Unlike other film stars, Sinha said, he joined the BJP at the peak of his career. “I have been trained in the BJP by ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh, who told me to respect and praise even adversaries if they are doing good,” he said.
In 2005, Sinha's name was mentioned as a chief minister candidate; Nitish Kumar became the chief minister then, with Sushil Modi as deputy chief minister. Party leaders said Sinha's downfall in the party began in 2010, when he declined to be the state party president. During the assembly polls the same year, a statewide rath yatra was planned under Sinha's leadership. But, at the behest of Sushil Modi, it was decided to organise ten rath yatras with a leader heading each one of them. Sinha later backtracked from the yatra. He won the Patna Sahib Lok Sabha seat with a margin of more than three lakh votes in 2014, despite opposition within the party against his candidature.
Sinha's alienation within the party could be because of his uneasy relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. They apparently don't want Sinha to steal their thunder during the rallies. “BJP leaders are afraid of his popularity,” said Sanjay Kumar Sinha, a journalist who has written a book on development of Bihar. “In all the public meetings where Sinha is present, people don’t want to listen to other leaders. It becomes a tough job to make any other leader look larger than life. Such is the clout of the 'Bihari babu'.”
In the late 1990s, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, too, got a glimpse of Sinha's popularity at a rally. The public refused to listen to Vajpayee's speech. As they screamed that the ‘Bihari babu’ should speak, Vajpayee retorted: “I am also Atal Bihari.” He meant to say he, too, was an absolute Bihari. “Probably this is one of the reason why he is not invited to bigger party rallies where top leaders are supposed to speak,” said a Sinha supporter. Vajpayee once told Sinha that he would turn into a neta (leader) from abhineta (actor) the day people stopped demanding film dialogues from him on stage.
“I don’t know why they are afraid of me. If people come to rallies because of me, it is an advantage for the party,” he said. “Vajpayeeji understood this and he gave me the honour of being the only star campaigner at his Lucknow election rally in 1999.”
Sinha said he had no desire to be the chief minister. “How many times should I say that I don’t nurse any such ambitions. I am happy at the Centre and love to do whatever duty is entrusted to me,” he told THE WEEK.
Clearly, Sinha is hurt by the conduct of the BJP leaders in Bihar. “Sometimes I ask why it is so that constantly I am in the opposition,” he said. “Now when my party is in power, I am treated like an outsider.” When Sushil Modi completed 25 years in politics, the state unit organised a massive programme to honour him. “I am much older than him in politics,” he said. “I was given a lifetime achievement award in the US for contribution to Indian cinema. Why can't the party hand over a bouquet of flowers for the achievement. All these things definitely make you feel bad.”
But Sinha is an avid supporter of Narendra Modi. He calls him an action hero with immense energy for bringing about change. But he said BJP leaders were bent upon failing him by not implementing his idea of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Also, he said, the special economic package for Bihar could have come a bit earlier. “The Bihar BJP leaders don’t have a sense of timing. They should have suggested to the prime minister to declare the economic package earlier. Now people question me why it has been announced now. I have difficulty answering them,” he said.
For someone who believes that politics is the art of being flexible, his reaction to the rumours of his expulsion from the BJP is: “Newton’s third law says each action has equal and opposite reaction.” But he is still open to sort out the issues with the party leadership. “I don’t want to live under any guilt,” he said. “If I have committed any wrong, please tell me. I will try to explain my point with logic. If I fail, I will say sorry with a hug.” He, however, said that this should not be misconstrued as his mafinama [apology].
The political stage
* Shatrughan Sinha, according to his website, came in touch with Jayaprakash Narayan in 1974
* In the early 1980s, he joined the BJP
* In 1996, he became a member of the Rajya Sabha and was reelected in 2002
* In 2009, he became a member of the Lok Sabha, representing the Patna Sahib constituency, and retained the seat in 2014