Star Power

Do celebs make good parliamentarians and politi­cians? What hap­pens in the In­dian elec­tions will tell.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Seemu Bhatt

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.

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