It is the media-made celebrity who is most visible in these elections.
Ever since N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) became chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in 1983, the number of film stars in politics has risen dramatically. Today, this trend is not confined to AP, where the Congress roped in film stars in the 1984 general election to counter NTR’s star appeal, or to Tamil Nadu, where every single chief minister since 1967 has been an actor or scriptwriter. This is now a truly national phenomenon.
But why do political parties need stars? One explanation, often heard, is that the electorate is growing younger and prefers relatively young candidates with “clean” records. We are also told that in the age of TV debates and live coverage, well turned out politicians are in high demand. These explanations do not quite account for the fielding of middle-aged and retired actors. Neither do they factor in the incapacity of several celebrities, including Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi, to make a good impression at election rallies and on television.
Two related features distinguish the new crop of star-politicians from their legendary counterparts — M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), NTR and J. Jayalalithaa. First, very few stars in the batch of 2014 continue to have film careers. They are either retired or have never really had much of a screen career. Hema Malini and Gul Panag, representing the BJP and AAP respectively, exemplify the two types of today’s star-politician. Second, stars are jostling for the limelight with a variety of other famous people, including mediapersons, scions of erstwhile ruling families and sportspersons.
Star-politicians do not occupy the pride of place that they once did. The difference between MGR and NTR, and their present day counterparts, may lie in the gap between what film scholar M. Madhava Prasad terms “star value” and “star power”. Star value, he argues, can be monetised. An actor with star value delivers box office hits and advertisements featuring him are capable of pushing products. More recently, actors’ star values have been enhanced by their presence in domains that are not directly related to the cinema (ownership of cricket teams, for example).
Star power is an altogether different thing. It can’t be created by hype or promotion. It is a position that a star is entrusted with by the viewers. Significantly, actors with star power emerge as representatives of entire populations, such as linguistic communities. This capacity of a star to represent a population is independent of the political process. Star power is, therefore, a rare and infinitely more precious attribute than star continued…