Shatrughan Sinha: An ego without a cause

A profile of India’s most sidelined public figure.

ByRajan Laad
Shatrughan Sinha: An ego without a cause
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It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that one of the gravest perils that plague mankind is an overestimated self-worth. This incurable disorder causes the afflicted to achieve a permanent divorce from reality, lose all perspective, and eternally place himself on a mythical peak from where he is the undisputed monarch of the cosmos. The individuals most likely to be affected by this syndrome are film stars and politicians. The faded variety often exhibits stronger symptoms.

It’s particularly excruciating to watch the formerly famous strive to remain relevant despite being long buried in stellar sludge. They mouth lines from forgotten films without any provocation, they initiate every remark with “my admirers tell me” followed by lavishing self-blandishments, frequently disparage others,  gravitate toward any microphone and hide behind a pair of very large sunglasses.

An individual that perfectly fits this bill is Shatrughan Sinha.

In the film industry, Sinha was at best a popular character actor who transitioned into playing leading roles. His mannerisms and speech patterns perfectly reflected his pugnaciousness and earned him prominence, albeit never superstardom. A look at Sinha’s filmography shows that he was seldom relied on to solely shoulder the burden of any film. In fact, Sinha earned his biggest successes playing supporting roles with Amitabh Bachchan in the lead.

Yet Sinha consistently insinuates that Bachchan stopped working with him owing to his growing insecurity over Sinha’s considerable talents. Bachchan himself clarified that he had grown weary of Sinha’s trademark tardiness. If Bachchan is a massive superstar today, he was the undisputed “one-man film industry” in the 1970s and 1980s—no other star was close. Such was the magnitude of his superstardom that even uncaringly made films with Bachchan would set the box ringing for ages. But in Sinha’s addled mind, prone to self-aggrandizement, it was he who was better than the best.

In politics once again, Sinha is relentless in reminding people that he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1984 at the height of his “stardom” and that he was their first “star campaigner”. He entered electoral politics in 1992, where he lost in an electoral contest to once superstar Rajesh Khanna. After the routing, Sinha claimed that LK Advani had compelled him to contest against his “friend” Khanna. He claimed he felt let down because Advani did not campaign for him and that he was sidelined by his party after his ignominious defeat.

In 1999, Sinha felt that his “star campaigning” was a huge factor behind the National Democratic Alliance’s emergence to power, yet he wasn’t given his due and was sidelined. He played rebel by praising the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Yadav while he criticised Vajpayee for reappointing George Fernandes as defense minister despite allegations of corruption.

In 2001, Sinha appeared in a stage play that had him take a dig at leaders such as Prime Minister Vajpayee and Mayawati. Perhaps being publicly mocked was not what they asked for but that didn’t stop Sinha. Sinha even invited Congress President Sonia Gandhi as the chief guest for the play’s silver jubilee show in Delhi, making a public display of his disenchantment with the BJP.

It has to be remembered that the NDA in 1999 was a fragile coalition, any sign of mutiny could have caused the house of cards to crumble. Perhaps in an attempt to placate Sinha, the Vajpayee government appointed him as Union health minister in 2002. But his frequent absenteeism and poor performance lead to him being transferred to the shipping ministry in 2003.

When the NDA returned to power in 2014, Sinha was denied a ministerial berth, perhaps based on his weak record as a minister before. Unlike 1999, the BJP had a majority of its own and did not have to submit to any arm twisting. This caused Sinha to conduct his most blatant phase of revolt, striking his party when it was most vulnerable. Prior to the state elections in Delhi, Sinha stated that PM Modi should take the blame should the BJP suffer a defeat in Delhi. Sinha went on to laud the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal. After the BJP was routed in his home state of Bihar, Sinha was seen gloating and celebrating with the winners Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav.

In his many subsequent media appearances Sinha said he was being sidelined (again), he was effusive in his praise for every Opposition leader, and was brutal in his assessment of the government’s performance. These sentiments were also reflected in his many Twitter tirades. As always, his attendance and performance in Parliament left a lot to be desired. Unsurprisingly, the BJP dropped Sinha, their sitting MP from Patna Sahib, and replaced him with Union minister RS Prasad.

Last month, Sinha joined the Congress. Following his induction, he maintained he was invited from almost every non-BJP party but he chose the Congress because of Patna Sahib. Reports suggest that it will be a close contest. A few days later, he campaigned for his wife, who is the Samajwadi Party’s candidate from Lucknow. He went on to assert that his current party rivals, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, were ”Prime Minister material”. If that wasn’t enough, he invoked Muhammad Ali Jinnah along with Gandhi, Patel, and Nehru as being responsible for the freedom and development of the country. He clarified that it was a “slip of the tongue”—that he meant Maulana Azad. Clearly the Congress must be thrilled by their recent acquisition.

If Sinha loses his seat in Patna Sahib, he will doubtlessly blame everybody but himself. But if he does win, it will be interesting to see how he navigates his new party. He keeps talking about the centralisation of power in the BJP with Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah. But the grand old party of India is known to compel everybody to bow before individuals from a certain family.

In recent appearances, Sinha has claimed that his victory in Patna Sahib in 2014 was despite the Modi wave and that he did not ask Modi to campaign for him. He cited prominent BJP leaders who lost elections despite the Modi wave to cement his case, although the caste composition of his constituency is said to have played a vital role in his victory. He also claims that he won by the highest vote margin while the truth is that it’s PM Modi who holds that record for his victory in Varanasi.

Sinha frequently mentions the “humiliation” of LK Advani and other senior leaders at the hands of Modi and Shah. This is perhaps Sinha’s attempt to add gravitas to his departure from the BJP and disguise it as a principled stand for his mentor. Perhaps Sinha fails to comprehend or has little concern for the fact that a public declaration of Advani’s ill-treatment only amplifies the humiliation. Advani himself has not uttered a word about being sidelined in his own party.

The garrulous Sinha also has an adjective fetish, unable to utter any name without a series of epithets. For Advani, it is “friend, philosopher, guide and tallest leader”, for Lalu Prasad Yadav, it is “special friend, true mass leader, the Messiah of the downtrodden and the tallest leader”, for Shashi Tharoor, it’s ”debonair, suave, gentleman, courteous and finest parliamentarians”—the epithets are plentiful, causing unintended hilarity.

British statesman and author Benjamin Disraeli once characterised his political rival as a “sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and to glorify himself”. This aptly and vividly describes Shatrughan Sinha. Sinha’s inflated opinion about himself disallows any realistic self-assessment or reflection. Never will he comprehend why he didn’t achieve superstardom in films or why he was sidelined in both the Modi and Vajpayee governments. He always estimates himself above Amitabh Bachchan in the film industry or Narendra Modi in politics.

Instead of following the conventional way of navigating through the corridors of power with a plan and his cards close to his chest, Sinha derives momentary pleasure in expressing whatever is on his mind, despite the fact that it always ends up rubbing his colleagues the wrong way. The insults may elicit a few cheap laughs but the targets of the insult seldom forget the public attack.

Perhaps this is why Lalu Prasad Yadav advised him to join the Congress instead of his own RJD and why none of the other parties were keen to induct him—they could foresee a catastrophic future. As Arun Jaitley astutely opined in his blog when Sinha moved to the Congress: “our problem is now yours”.

Despite all this, it’s impossible to ignore Shatrughan Sinha. Sinha is what every ravenous news media outlet craves for: the party insider willing to disparage his colleagues and spill the beans of what occurs behind closed doors. For the viewer, it is probably the perverse pleasure one derives while watching a disaster film. You know the monster is going to ravage everything around him and eventually self-destruct, you just want to see how he does it. But it is this attention that Sinha confuses with adulation and causes him to think of himself as relevant, despite being a shotgun that has fired all its bullets.

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