Poll stars

It is the media-made celebrity who is most visible in these elections.

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 value.

It is not stardom to which we should turn for clues to understand the present scenario, but the manufacture of celebrities by the mass media. Film stars are, no doubt, celebrities. However, in the age of satellite television, it is possible for a relatively minor actor to become a celebrity. India’s political establishment has turned to celebrities, and celebrities to politics, in an attempt to harness star value. The operative logic is that of rent: all concerned hope that the celebrity’s face will earn rent in the form of votes.

In this scheme of things, someone like Rakhi Sawant, who has a demonstrable capacity to stay in the news, would be a reasonably good choice as a contestant. The point is not whether she wins the election: the biggest stars have delivered expensive duds at the box office, no less a politician than Indira Gandhi lost an election. The beauty of the model is that the celebrity is fungible — you can replace an entire set with a new one in five years — and rarely has the political clout to make demands on the party.

All things considered, 2014 promises to be a watershed election for celebrity politicians. Foremost on the minds of observers and party bosses is the question of the political worth of film stars and other celebrities. I have four actors on my watch-list for assessing the impact of star politicians in our time. Nagma, standing from Meerut on a Congress ticket, reportedly chose to act in Bhojpuri films, after her career in Hindi as well as Telugu and Tamil cinema was over, in preparation for a crossover into full-time politics.

The second is Gul Panag, the AAP’s candidate in Chandigarh. She augmented her unremarkable acting career with charitable activities and by participating in the India Against Corruption campaign. The third is Pawan Kalyan, Chiranjeevi’s youngest brother.

He established the Jana Sena Party, declaring his intention to play kingmaker by aligning with other anti-Congress forces. It is not clear if his party will contest in 2014, let alone win a single seat. Finally, there is Vijayashanthi, who entered politics after her role as a Dalit woman from Telangana made her a superstar in the region. She was elected to Parliament from Medak on a TRS ticket in 2009, but joined the Congress after the passage of the Telangana bill.

She is likely to be pitted against her former party colleague and Telangana’s biggest politician, K. Chandrasekhar Rao of the TRS. Even if a last-minute electoral alliance is forged between the Congress and TRS, Vijayashanthi will continue to be the most charismatic Congress politician of Telangana. Better still, she is unlikely to face any challenge as the only Telugu film star after NTR to be a serious contender for chief ministership.

The writer is senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society and visiting professor at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He is the author of ‘Megastar’ and ‘Politics as Performance’

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