Gone are the days of dancing atop tables. In her latest avatar as a politician, Rakhi Sawant jumps on the campaign wagon and promises swift action to those who care to listen to her.
It had to be the chilli. That the Election Commission decided to offer a green chilli as a symbol for Rakhi Sawant’s maiden political venture cannot be regarded as mere coincidence. Thirteen years after she first sizzled on our screens in Mohabbat hai mirchi, her breakthrough item number in the dud that was Chura Liyaa Hai Tumne, it seems only right that chilli-shaped jewellery should dangle from her ears and wrists as she begins an improbable career as a politician.
On March 28, Sawant, 36, announced the formation of the Rashtriya Aam Party (RAP) and her decision to contest the Lok Sabha elections from her native Mumbai North West constituency. The news has been greeted with amusement and derision in equal measure, and as her team will have you believe, with widespread enthusiasm as well.
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“Fire mere mein pehle se raha hai, hamesha se raha hai. Jab se main paida hui, tab se fire raha hai. Isliye mein film industry mein aayi. Aur isliye maine rajneeti mein sirf janta ka dukh door karne ke liye pair rakha hai (I’ve always had a fire in my belly. That is why I entered the film industry. That is why I have entered politics, to serve the people),” says Sawant.
Ever since she stormed into mass consciousness with a string of bit roles and item songs, the daughter of a retired police inspector, Anand Shankar Sawant, and a small-time actress, Jaya Sawant, has created a combative on-screen persona.
Stints on the first season of Bigg Boss, and hosting Rakhi ka Swayamwar (in which Sawant chose one able-bodied candidate as her husband) and Rakhi ka Insaaf (where Sawant, like a desi Judge Judy, dispenses justice to participants on the show) have done little to endear her to a family audience. But Sawant is no wallflower ― she is well aware of her ability to liven up what is viewed as a four-way contest between Congress incumbent Gurudas Kamat, the BJP’s Gajanan Kirtikar, the MNS’s Mahesh Manjrekar and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Mayank Gandhi.
In the week that she has been the vice- president of RAP, Sawant has filed a police complaint against Gandhi for telling a tabloid that no serious person would vote for her, brought Jogeshwari to a standstill with a two-hour roadshow and announced two candidates for the Varanasi and Thane constituencies ― all of this in the past 72 hours.
Once the EC offered the chilli, Sawant lost no time realising its potent effect as a party symbol. “Choosing the green outfit was my idea. We want to give everyone in our constituency a green signal. Matlab aap ka kaam hoga (your work will be done),” she says.
Sawant is clad in green from fingernail to feet, creating an effect that is at once impressive and jarring. Her nail paint is the same shade of harlequin green as her earrings, while she alternates between fluorescent and dark green kurtas and Nehru jackets. Her hair is tied in a tight bun and a green RAP topi rests on her head. Thick black spectacles and blue or white sneakers complete her look. Not a button is out of place, deliberately or otherwise. The item-girl-turned-neta is covered from head to toe.
Unexpectedly, the party has quickly become a rallying point for those disgruntled or ignored by AAP. Sawant’s tussle with Gandhi aside, the RAP’s green caps are clearly modelled on the AAP topi, and she loses no opportunity to run down Arvind Kejriwal. At a press conference on Saturday, she announced that the RAP has pitted an engineer, RP Singh, against Kejriwal in Varanasi. Not a single mention of BJP PM candidate Narendra Modi was made.
Inside the party office, which occupies the second floor of Oshiwara’s Om Heera Panna mall, party workers hustle and bustle. Unlike its ritzier cousins, Infinity and Mega mall, both located less than a kilometer away, this shopping arcade boasts of little, barring a Gold’s gym and the headquarters of the Bhojpuri film producer Krishanlal Hans, who is also the founder and president of RAP. Known to have diverse interests, including a firm that supplies construction labour to the United Arab Emirates, not much is known about Hans. Party spokesperson Rishi Raj is reluctant to say much: “Unke toh bohot se kaarobaar hain (He has many business interests).”
The mall itself is adorned with life-size posters of RAP and Sawant, dressed in, no prizes for guessing, a green nauvari saree.
Four bodyguards hulk over the 5’4” performer, tailing her as she flits between a dance-hall-cum-party conference room, and a tiny office where top leaders talk strategy. The men clear narrow corridors, swatting wanderers aside each time Sawant passes through.
“Initially, while we were thinking of what to call the party, I came up with Bhartiya Aam Party — BAP. I really wanted it, AAP ka BAP. But we found that it had been registered already,” she said in an interview on Friday. Over the phone, she repeatedly chides journalists who confuse RAP as an offshoot of AAP. “Aadmi mat likhna. Sirf Rashtriya Aam Party (Don’t write aadmi, only aam)!”
For two hours on Friday, all of Jogeshwari grinned, wide, toothy, open-mouthed, as Sawant, now dressed in green and yellow, passed by in a large convoy. People stopped to watch, waving at her from rooftops and railway platforms and whispered to each other excitedly. The smiles began to fade even before the large truck atop which Sawant was standing had turned the corner. Hands returned to tightening screws at roadside garages, women continued to usher their children home from school and conversations resumed at tea stalls after a moment’s pause to stop and stare. “Rakhi Sawant aa gayi, hadd ho gayi (Rakhi Sawant is here, this is the limit),” said a security guard at a housing complex in Jogeshwari’s Behram Baug locality.
First atop a jeep and then the truck, Sawant tried to hard-sell that unlike her rivals, she was a local girl, she was one of them. She wants Jogeshwari to believe that she has sacrificed Bollywood to serve the people. But if she is to be taken seriously, it will take the former item girl some serious mettle to convince the constituency. “She is a tapori. How will a tapori lead people,” asked Sadashiv Shetty, proprietor of Deepak Bar in Worli.
If Gandhi’s remarks have raised uncomfortable questions, Sawant lets them slide. “Why can’t voters take me seriously? Just because I’m from Bollywood? What has taking the Congress and BJP seriously achieved,” she fumes, before rushing off to pose for another lot of photos for her Twitter feed.
Sawant is not new to public derision. If the audience tired of watching her appear in typecast glamourous roles in barely-there costumes, her reinvention as a reality show star brought her a volley of abuse. On dozens of entertainment websites, viewers are unanimous in their opinions that Sawant committed herself to entering a locked house, getting married onscreen and dispensing justice as only she can, simply to stay relevant. Her motormouth was severely criticised, as was her conduct during Rakhi ka Insaaf. The shadow of Lakshman Prasad, who allegedly killed himself after being humiliated on her show, is yet to completely fade away.
But her brother Rakesh Sawant, 39, who has returned to her side after eight years is convinced that his sister has turned over a new leaf. Early in her career, Rakesh said he disapproved of her work and stayed out of the limelight. But he could not ignore his sister’s call when she explained her plans. Today, he is an active part of her campaign and helps organise her roadshows. “On TV, you have to taunt everyone and be a step ahead. Now, she has become very soft-spoken. It has taken her eight years to come back. She has a fighting spirit,” he says.
Whether or not her starry background helps her on polling day, Rakhi is not modest about her political ambitions. “Main darne waalo mein se nahi hoon. Aawaz uthaane waalo mein se hoon. Sansad mein jaa kar hilaana chahti hoon sansad ko (I am fearless, I will raise my voice. I will rock the Parliament),” she thunders.