Do celebs make good parliamentarians and politicians? What happens in the Indian elections will tell.
There are three things that Indians love to discuss – politics, films and cricket. It is, therefore, not surprising to see the political parties unleash a star war by roping in celebrities as party candidates and campaigners in the world's biggest elections. For celebrities, mainly those past their prime, politics is a good second career. Given that the Indian population is largely star-struck, celebrities do not find it difficult to launch their political careers or gather crowds as political campaigners. For political parties, celebrities are a timetested tool to create interest among voters and capture their imagination.
The most theatrical story of tinseltown politics was the stunning entry and shocking exit of mega superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Big B, as Bachchan is fondly called, entered politics at the behest of his close friend Rajiv Gandhi, by contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Allahabad in 1984. In a mere three years, he resigned when his family's name was dragged into the Bofors scandal. Big B has since stayed away from the "cesspool" – the term he had famously used for politics.
Although politics has only gotten murkier since Big B resigned, there has been a spike in cine and sports stars joining the political arena in the last decade or so. The outgoing 15th Lok Sabha had its fair share of celebrities – Hindi film actors Shatrughan Sinha and Jaya Prada, regional film actors Vijayashanti, Satabdi Roy, Tapas Pal, Siddhantha Mahapatra and Jayasudha,
former cricketers Kirti Azad, Navjot Singh Siddhu and Mohammad Azharuddin and former footballer Prasun Banerjee.
The trend of big-ticket film personalities metamorphosing into big-ticket politicians began in Tamil Nadu. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam ( DMK), formed in 1949, was the first party to successfully use the movie medium to propagate its ideology. DMK founder, C.N. Annadurai and his political successor, M.K. Karunanidhi, were film scriptwriters. Their ideologically motivated films reaped considerable dividends for the DMK and led to the formation of the first non-Congress government in the state. The first actor-turned-chief minister in the state and the country was the great matinee idol M.G. Ramachandran, who formed the DMK breakaway ADMK (now AIADMK) in 1972. J. Jaylalitha, the current Chief Minister and MGR's political heir, was one of his leading ladies in the films. Among these four Tamil Nadu film personalities-turned-politicians, they held the office of chief minister twelve times.
The relatively newer Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, which is now the principal opposition party in the assembly, was formed by action hero Vijayakanth in 2005.
In neighboring Andhra Pradesh, Telugu film legend N.T. Rama Rao established the Telugu Desam Party in 1982. He even acted in and directed a movie while he was chief minister of Andhra. Chiranjeevi, union minister of state for tourism, is another southern superstar who has been successful in politics. He formed his own party but later merged it into the Indian National Congress. Now, his brother, Pawan Kalyan, also a star, has launched his party, the Janasena.
Unlike in the two southern states, where the line between politics and cinema has been traditionally blurred, the interest and involvement of the Hindi and regional film industries in politics was limited. Over the decades, there has been a steady trickle of entertainers who have been voted or nominated to the Indian parliament. Some popular Hindi film stars such as Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Dharmendra, Sunil Dutt and Govinda have been drawn to politics. Many of the stars turned out to be onetime wonders. Some got disillusioned and left politics for good, while others took to politics like a duck to water. Celebrities like Sunil Dutt, Raj Babbar, Smirit Irani, Shatrughan Sinha and Kirti Azad made a successful transition into politics, while Govinda and Dharmendra chose to hang their boots. The Government of India honoured actor Dilip Kumar with a nomination to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament. He was also appointed Sheriff of Mumbai in 1980. Actress Shabana Azmi, who is a social and women's rights activist and a Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Population Fund ( UNPFA), was also nominated a member of the Rajya Sabha.
Do celebrities make good politicians? Politics is a very demanding profession, where mere good intentions do not suffice. It requires a deep understanding of India’s political history, insights into the functioning of democracy and awareness of various issues. Many stars-turned-parliamentarians lack such knowledge and are sometimes clueless about their own party’s political stand. They are rarely present in the parliament or in their constituency.
Actor Govinda, who emerged as a giant killer in 2004 elections by defeating BJP leader Ram Naik in Mumbai North constituency, spoke only twice in the Lok Sabha in four years – that too for two minutes each. The Congress MP was a busy film star. As such, he could make himself present for just 37 out of 303 parliamentary sittings. Another case in point is that of former cricketers Siddhu and Azharuddin. Azhar fielded five questions in his five years as MP and has hardly been to his Moradabad constituency. Siddhu, on the other hand, was so busy with his TV commitments that a few cheeky voters in his Amritsar constituency put up his missing posters. No wonder then that Siddhu is not in BJP's candidates list this time, while Azhar had to request the Congress bosses to move him to a safe seat in Rajasthan.
This year's election has many political debutants from the sports and film industry – Gul Panag, Kirron Kher, Moonmoon Sen, Mahesh Manjerekar, Nagma, Ravi Kishan, Bhaichung Bhutia, Mohammad Kaif, Babul Supriyo, Bappi Lahiri and Paresh Rawal etc. Some seasoned campaigners like Shatrughan Sinha and Raj Babbar are also in the fray. There are a couple of turncoats as well. Prakash Jha, a filmmaker, contested and lost as a Lok Janshakti Party candidate in 2009; now he is a Janata Dal (United) candidate. Manoj Tiwari, a famous Bhojpuri actor and singer, contested and lost on a Samajwadi Party ticket in 2009. This time, he is the BJP candidate in Delhi North-East. An army of other stars are expected to add glam at the hustings.
Many of them have been drawn from distant constituencies. Actors Nagma and Ravi Kishan are Mumbai residents, but are contesting, respectively, from Meerut and Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh. They aspire to represent the local people whom they barely know. If they win, they will have to shuttle between their families and work commitments in Mumbai and their parliamentary responsibilities in Delhi. Would they have enough time then to serve the people?
Cricketer Mohammad Kaif has been given a Congress ticket from Phulpur – a seat that gave India its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. A few days before his name was announced, he was playing the Ranji Trophy matches. For someone so absorbed in cricket, if he wins the election, can he be expected to participate in parliamentary debates on foreign direct investment, reforms in the agricultural sector, the Kashmir issue, reservation policies or new state formations?
While it will be wrong to say that celebrities cannot play an effective role in the parliament, past experience shows that very few have proven themselves as being exceptional parliamentarians. Stars can undoubtedly play a very important role in pulling votes or in motivating and educating people on poll issues. Even the Election Commission of India has acknowledged the influence of stars on people by roping in actor Aamir Khan as its 'national icon' for creating voter awareness. However, crowding the Lok Sabha with too many celebrities, especially if they are not equipped to or inclined to contribute significantly, may actually weaken the parliament's functioning and adversely impact the decision-making process at the national level. The writer is a Mumbai-based independent strategic analyst and author.