Stars are a good bet for elections

It is election time and in this season political parties develop an extra interest in film stars. On their part, stars reciprocate. The choice is not automatic and there are factors that qualify them as probables.

Films and politics have been poles apart and the use politicians had for film stars was to present them at political rallies in order to attract crowds. While mainstream parties were yet to familiarise themselves with this process of using film stars for campaigning, it mostly happened at the local level.

In Mumbai, some party candidates were bound to know an actor or somebody who did. Politicians in other cities used cash, contacts or favours.

In the old days in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, a star was repaid by exempting his films from entertainment tax. Taxes then were not standardised as they are today. The entertainment tax, being a state subject, varied from state to state and ate up a big chunk of a cinema ticket.

In national politics, the involvement of stars or other film personalities started with nominating them to the Rajya Sabha. This meant recognising a star’s contributions to a specific field. The people at large and the media usually endorsed such appointments, for the nominated star commanded their respect.

The first such star to be nominated to the Rajya Sabha was the late Prithviraj Kapoor in 1952. His third generation is still active in the film industry, though none seems to show an inclination towards politics. The next one to be so nominated was Nargis Dutt. Dara Singh also made it to the Rajya Sabha. People welcomed such nominations.

Today, quite a few film personalities adorn the Upper House. Nominations to the Rajya Sabha have always been an honour, but these nominated stars hardly served any purpose for the parties nominating them or for the film industry. They basked in the glory of being in the Rajya Sabha.

Most were not interested and rarely attended the sessions. The industry was held to ransom in those days by just about every government body that the film industry dealt with. Be it Central Excise, Censor Board, or Income Tax. There was red tape in all these departments.

For example, a film’s release print had to pay excise duty according to the length of the film and most of the films in those days exceeded 16,000 feet! When you exported a release print of your film abroad to the distributor there, a censor certificate was not required because all countries you exported your film to had their own censorship bodies. The catch here was that the customs department would only accept the length as certified in the censor certificate!

And no star Member of Parliament raised his or her voice against this anomaly. They remained decorative pieces.

As elections started getting tougher and the opposition parties became more prominent, politicians thought of a better way to use film celebrities — make them contest Lok Sabha elections instead of using them as crowd pullers in election rallies.

So, we had Sunil Dutt contesting from Mumbai. Dutt was an apt choice, and he won the election from Mumbai Northwest and stayed in office for 12 years. Thereafter, it was all about star power for that is what worked. So, we had Amitabh Bachchan contesting from his ancestral town, Allahabad, and then, Rajesh Khanna from New Delhi.

It became obvious that these stars did not have staying power and, as their popularity waned, they failed to repeat their success. Rajesh Khanna was the prime example. Also, by this time, the voters were becoming more aware of whom to choose. A transition was taking place.

Meanwhile, as against national politics, South India was different. Film stars did not contest for a party; they formed their own political parties. Here, film stars, in people’s eyes, are not only only to God. Fan clubs built temples for their stars! Tamil Nadu was the early starter where film personalities took to politics.

When M. Karunanidhi took over as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) as its president, the party treasurer was M.G. Ramachandran. Karunanidhi was a celebrated writer and MGR a superstar. MGR soon parted ways with Karunanidhi and formed the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

In Andhra Pradesh, it was N.T. Rama Rao, a Telugu superstar, who formed the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), and in Karnataka, Kannada superstar Rajkumar did not fight elections, but his word carried more weight than that of the state government. He could bring the state to a standstill as he did when he decreed that Kannada should be the only official language in Karnataka.

Eventually, national and state politicians realised that instead of using film stars to attend political rallies to pull in crowds, why not let them contest elections, they reasoned.

Sunil Dutt carried the image of a nationalist and a family man. But the power of star power was evident when Amitabh Bachchan was nominated to contest from Allahabad (Prayagraj) against a very strong leader, H.N. Bahuguna. Bachchan won by a massive number of votes, reportedly over 1.85 lakh.

This way, film stars were considered sure-shot bets in elections. Since then, a galaxy of stars have been active in politics: Raj Babbar, Shatrughan Sinha, Jaya Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Dharmendra, Govinda, Hema Malini, Kirron Kher, Urmila Matondkar, Gul Panag, Jaya Prada, Paresh Rawal, and so on. Some have stayed back, others got fed up soon enough, realising that politics was not meant for them.

The strike rate is good as rarely any star loses elections unless they are contesting from the wrong place at the wrong time and for the wrong party. Urmila Matondkar and Gul Panag are prime examples.

In most cases, film stars have felt out of place in politics and have eventually deserted their positions. They have never made a name as an MP or raised issues that concern the people or their industry (although Jaya Bachchan is an exception) — most have a poor attendance record.

Amitabh Bachchan resigned without completing his term. Rajesh Khanna did not want to contest again. Dharmendra’s contribution to his constituency as well as to his party was nil and the same was the case with Vinod Khanna, Paresh Rawal, Sunny Deol, and Govinda, who as a Congress candidate had defeated a major BJP leader, Ram Naik.

Govinda has now joined the Shiv Sena in the hope of contesting from Mumbai North West. If he now wants to be back in electoral politics, it is because a number of actors attempt to find an alternative to keep themselves occupied when their film career is over. After all, they are so used to staying in the limelight.

That brings one to a couple of prominent names from the fraternity nominated to fight the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. Kangana Ranaut is slated to contest from her native town, Mandi in Himachal Pradesh; Arun Govil has also been fielded from his hometown Meerut in Uttar Pradesh.

Both stand a good chance. Arun Govil is known for his portrayal of Lord Ram in the television serial ‘Ramayana’. And Lord Rama cannot lose in Uttar Pradesh today.

As for Kangana Ranaut, Supriya Shrinate’s derogatory social media post against her and her constituency, Mandi, has given her a huge advantage.

–By Vinod Mirani

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