Celebrities in Politics

We see them smiling from the silver screen in designer wear, with picture perfect scenery in the background. We see them waving from toothpaste and fairness cream ads. However, a celebrity’s space in a public sphere does not always translate into that of a political one.

While political parties constantly try to increase their clout by bringing in celebrities to sway the vote bank, the President nominates 12 professionals who excel in the fields of art, literature, science and social service to the Rajya Sabha. Besides this, due to popular demand, actors are voted into the Lok Sabha by an unassuming public which judges them by their performance in the movies.

The Citizens’ Report on Governance and Development 2008-09 came up with disturbing statistics on celebrity behaviour in Parliament. None of these members had an attendance above 20 percent in the Rajya Sabha in 2007, it was found.

Some dynamic on-screen stars chose to remain mum, without asking questions or participating in any attempt. Dharmendra, the Bollywood veteran who contested election from Bikaner as part of the BJP has a meagre attendance of just 1.5 percent in the Lok Sabha. He did not ask a single question during proceedings. Several times he has confessed to the media that politics is not his cup of tea, though he claims to have worked for the development of his constituency, despite staying in Mumbai.
His wife, Hema Malini, a Rajya Sabha member had an attendance of only 10 percent in session but was more active in asking questions and debates. However, she also told the media that she had grown very little as a politician. Her active life as an actor and dancer constantly interfere with her attendance. She also stated that actor find it difficult to be in politics because that world is too different from the creative world that celebrities inhabit, where circumstances are imaginary. Dharmendra said that there was no room in politics for ‘emotional’ people.
Navjot Singh Sidhu, who seems to suffer from verbal diarrhoea in his numerous TV appearances couldn’t seem to find the same josh for his career in the BJP. His attendance was six percent of the total sittings in the Lok Sabha.

Maybe Hema Malini is right and celebrities aren’t really suited to the world of politics, where nothing is scripted and there are no retakes. However, when the Rajya Sabha introduced the nomination, I’m sure it was to get in the viewpoints of those that remain outside the political field, yet could be of vital importance to it.

However, there is the flipside of the coin and the actors-turned-politicians who use their popularity with the general public to their best possible advantage. M.G. Ramachandran, a household name in Tamil Nadu started out in Kollywood but founded the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 1972. He promoted his politics through some of his films and his party won every single state assembly election as long as he was alive. He was Chief Minister from 1977 until his death in 1987 and will forever be regarded as one of the most popular politician in the South. His star status did not mean empty promises. He worked on social development, expanding the education system and started the Mid-Day Meal Scheme to encourage children to get nutrition as well as an education.
Jayalalithaa, another actress who lit up the Tamil and Telugu screen now heads the party, becoming the first woman leader of the opposition in 1989 and the first Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1991. She was responsible for social reforms such as banning lottery tickets and restricting the sale of alcohol and sand mining to government agencies.

N.T. Rama Rao, a Telugu film industry veteran formed the Telugu Desam Party in 1982, after his movie career. He used his popularity to win 35 out of 40 seats in the Lok Sabha election of 1984. He started the policy of distributing rice at subsidised rates to the poor, starting a trend that echoes in India almost 14 years after his death.

All actors and celebrities cannot be politicians, it takes grit and determination to step into this murky field.  There are those that have misused their popularity and resorted to corruption to bring their parties to the forefront. They would do well to remember the old adage of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and use their platform like the heroes and heroines they play in their movies.

Vrinda Manocha

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