Celebrities add colour to Indian politics

From actors to sportsmen and even ex-generals, political parties are roping in the famous to shore up their fortunes.

Olympian Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore at a BJP function [Shahnawaz Akhtar/ Al Jazeera]

Elections in India – the world’s largest democracy – are usually a boisterous and colourful affair and the current run-up to the polls in five states, seen as a semi-final to next year’s general elections, is no exception.

The states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Mizoram will be electing new provincial assemblies in a few weeks time and rival political parties are turning on their charm offensive to woo voters.

In doing so, they are roping in celebrities – from Bollywood stars to sportsmen and glamorous princesses. The Indian electorate – many poor and uneducated – is generally seen to be star-struck and each political party is hoping that the celebrities would help them to capture the voter’s imagination.

The celebrities adding to the glamour quotient this time include Olympics medal-winning ace shooter Rajavardhan Singh Rathore and the erstwhile princess of Jaipur, Diya Kumari. The two have joined the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), while popular singer Daler Mehndi has signed up with the ruling Congress.

Even the recently retired chief of the Indian army, V K Singh, has bitten the bullet.

The general had a dust up with the ruling party in the last months of his tenure and apparently has a grudge to settle. Last month, he was seen sharing the dais with Narendra Modi, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.

It is evident that the BJP intends to take pot shots at its rival Congress, firing from the shoulders of the retired soldier.

“The political parties are in dire need of such celebrities, as they are famous and are articulate enough to engage the public to rope in votes. Parties don’t have many issues to highlight or discuss, so they are banking on non-political popular faces to ensure a win,” social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan explains.

Celebrities, it is generally believed, are a time-tested tool for the political parties to tide over their bankruptcy.

Film stars and iconic cricketers have been a staple in Indian elections for decades.

Celebrities in parliament

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan took the plunge in the 80s and was elected a member of parliament from Allahabad. Rajesh Khanna, the celluloid heartthrob of the 70s, was a prominent Congress campaigner and a MP.

Even the current parliament has its fair share of celebrities. Ex-Indian cricket captain Mohammad Azharuddin is a Congress MP from Moradabad, while his erstwhile team mate, Navjot Singh Siddhu is a BJP MP from the western city of Amritsar.

Though not aligned with any particular party, even Sachin Tendulkar – hailed as the God of Cricket – is a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament.

Sadly though, a majority of these cricketers who set the cricketing field alight by their masterly strokes, have not really performed as well in their new roles.

Azharuddin, for one, rarely made his presence felt in the parliament, fielding just five questions in the five years he has been a MP. Sidhu’s track record has also been far from impressive: his attendance at the sessions over the years has been as low as 27 percent (Source PRS Legislative Research), prompting his piqued constituents to put up “Missing MP” posters.

Fascination undiminished

But yet, India’s fascination with celebrities remains undiminished.

J Jayalalithaa, the current chief minister of the southern Tamil Nadu state, is an ex-film star, who learnt the political ropes under her late mentor, M G Ramachandran, another top celluloid hero.

The neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh had also fallen for the celluloid charm, electing N T Rama Rao – best known for portraying mythological characters in films – as its chief minister in the 1980s.

“Media is playing an active role that is giving birth to leaders with a new vision, who are vocal about issues plaguing the nation. And that is making the ageing parties, bringing in newbies under their folds in order to give a shot in their political arms,” says Bollywood film-maker Mahesh Bhatt.

Celebrities – big and small – are therefore having a field day in politics.

Southern film star Chiranjeevi was a federal minister till very recently, while Hema Malini, an ex-leading actress, is a BJP MP.

Others jostling for attention in what is otherwise a crowded parliament include Prasun Banerjee (ex-footballer), Satabdi Roy (actress), Tapas Paul (actor), Jaya Bachchan (actress) and Raj Babbar (actor).

Princess Diya Kumari [Shahnawaz/ Al Jazeera]

“Political parties bring celebrities with lots of hope but like their acting, politics too is a demanding profession and many lose out due to lack of application,” says Rasheed Kidwai, the author of an upcoming book titled “Stars From Another Sky”.

The book would chart the life and times of celebrities who took the plunge into politics and their progress.

In the meantime, Princess Kumari of Jaipur is busy charting her own future. With an eye on the upcoming elections, she has already started canvassing for support among the electorate who were once her former subjects.

“I have no issues if people do not address me as princess. I was doing social service and will serve the people and party,” she says.

Few can grudge the celebrities like Diya Kumari for their urge to serve. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the ace shooter, was a former army man. Having discarded the army uniform for politicians’ clothes, he insists he has not taken his eyes off the target.

“I remain a soldier – for the betterment of my country,” he told a private television channel recently.

This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.

Source: Al Jazeera