Monday, March 28, 2016

As Parties UP the Glam Quotient ...... Power & Politics / The Sunday Standard / March 27, 2016

As Parties Up the Glam Quotient, Ideology May Become Fading Star of Indian Politics

BJP named former pacer Sreesanth as its candidate for Thiruvananthapuram
Politics and entertainment have long been brothers—both require a measure of magnetism, a talent for self-promotion and an instinctive feel for media manipulation. No wonder, come election time, the world of politics likes to pull in the stars and the trappings of stardom. Ideological icons fall by the wayside as glamazons from the world of cinema and sports clamber onto political bandwagons for electioneering, and political campaigns morph into entertainment shows. This year promises to be no different. For the elections in five states, even mighty leaders like Narendra Modi and Congress president Sonia Gandhi have despatched their best hunters to scout for cine stars and sports icons as well as literati and chatterati who can expand their share of the political market. In situations where the party has no more than a symbolic presence in the region or state, local celebs, who’re au courant with regional politics, have been roped in to move the electorate.

Last week, the BJP announced that it was fielding former cricketer S Sreesanth as its candidate for Thiruvananthapuram. Since Sreesanth has become known more for match-fixing and dancing than for his medium pace bowling, he was banned for life from playing cricket by the BCCI in 2013. But, clearly, the ruling party at the Centre believes that he is still capable of bowling out its rivals in a state where it’s struggling to open an account.

Now, Tamil Nadu has been dominated by screen stars for the past 50 years, as was undivided Andhra Pradesh (with NT Rama Rao, who was as successful in the political arena as he was in cinema, along with Jayaprada, Chiranjeevi, Mohan Babu, Kota Srinivas Rao and, more recently, Pawan Kalyan). In Tamil Nadu, the state’s biggest film stars created political parties for personal ambition rather than ideology. It was easy, as the charisma of MG Ramachandran, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa easily moved the masses to bring them to power even as many others turned out to be also-rans. Of late, both the Congress and BJP have been struggling to persuade Tamil filmstars like Vijaykanth, who formed the DMDK in 2005, to join them as an ally to increase their political share, but with little success.

In West Bengal and Assam, too, the parties have identified famous persons from sports, art, culture, cinema and society to help them with their electoral mission. The BJP, for instance, has decided to field a member of the Subhas Chandra Bose family against CM Mamata Banerjee. This despite the Bose family having nothing to do with the Sangh Parivar except for the fact that Modi went out of the way to make some secret documents public and hosted the Bose family at 7 RCR.

But then, all political parties without exception have been diluting their declared ideology over the past few decades. The process began with the catapulting of Indira Gandhi to the top in 1969 when she took over the Congress after the first split. The khadi dhoti- and Gandhi cap-wearing leaders were purged and a new crop of people bearing personal loyalty to Indira was drafted into the party. Though the Congress still swore by secularism and Garibi Hatao, Indira was seen as the Congress. Later on, Dev Kant Barooah, the portly and balding party president, redefined the party’s ideology by giving a slogan: Indira is India. Congress leaders of the time insisted that the personality of their leader reflected what the party stood for: socialism, secularism and democracy. Indira Gandhi, for sure, didn’t depend on glamour or corporate leaders to win an election. In fact, the joke at the time was that even a lamp post could win an election if it was backed by her.

It was Rajiv Gandhi who introduced glamour and a corporate culture into the Congress. A natural charmer, he inducted technocrats Arun Singh and Arun Nehru into politics, took India into the 21st century through technology and responsive government, and gave a new twist to Congress’ ideology. But he also relied on glamour from sports and Bollywood. He brought his friend Amitabh Bachchan in to defeat the formidable Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna. Later on, biggies like Rajesh Khanna, Sunil Dutt, Raj Babbar, Govinda and Ramya from Karnataka too came in to fight elections on behalf of the party. The Congress was also the first to field former cricketer Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi as its candidate from Bhopal (but he lost). The trend continues till today, with over a dozen filmstars and sportspersons holding key positions at the Centre or the states.

With Congress using the glam quotient (GQ) to maul its powerful leaders, the BJP also decided to fall back on its fair and lovely supporters. Lal Krishna Advani, a film buff and cricket enthusiast, opened the party doors for both film and sports stars. He brought in Dharmendra, Shatrughan Sinha, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini from Bollywood and cricketers Navjot Sidhu, Chetan Chauhan and Kirti Azad for their vote-catching capacity. Now the Modi-Shah duo is taking forward the strategy of using GQ to bolster the party’s electoral chances.

The GQ bug has even hit regional parties like the Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and, specially, Aam Aadmi Party, which has mastered the art of roping in the maximum number of local and national icons for expanding its base.

With each party fighting to maximise its GQ, the Indian political establishment has the globe’s largest number of movers and shakers from the glamorous world working for it. With over 40 prominent film personalities and some 20 sportspersons, India is leading the world followed by the Philippines and the US. The UK, the mother of democracy, has been able to absorb less than a dozen leaders from non-political background.  In Europe too, political parties rarely rope in film stars or sportspersons to win elections for them as they feel that the shelf life of the bold and beautiful paratroopers is limited.

Back home in India, however, the story is quite different. This despite the fact that, with the exception of some regional parties, the nation has seen all its ‘political celebrities’ vanishing without leaving any trace of an ideological contribution. If this continues and parties fail to create credible, acceptable leaders from their shrinking base of committed cadres, ideologically led Indian politics will be replaced with musings of egoist leaders and ideologically bankrupt-but-highly successful stars from the film and sports arena rather than the real world of the politics of heat and dust.; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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