When Amitabh Bachchan was fielded from his home constituency in Allahabad, where he famously defeated former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna in 1984, it not only dealt a serious blow to the socialist stalwart who had never anticipated this defeat, but also firmly entrenched in the nation’s electoral narrative the ploy of fielding Bollywood celebrities.
Since then, it has been a never-ending spectacle. From Hema Malini to Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna to Vinod Khanna, the who’s who of Bollywood has lent glamour to the elections in India.
Not just Bollywood biggies, now even regional singers like Hans Raj Hans have won a Lok Sabha constituency in the capital; political parties have never shied away from giving tickets to famous personalities from the world of showbiz and glamour.
Consider the following details of this year’s elections. Fading star Sunny Deol’s successful election to Gurdaspur, just a week after joining the BJP, is another example of star power working for an actor who chose to capitalise on his Jat image.
What worked for Deol and his party was his image as a nationalistic hero in a rally he held in Gurdaspur, from where cruised to power.
Delhi BJP chief and former Bhojpuri superstar Manoj Tiwari defeated Delhi’s longest serving chief minister Sheila Dikshit from North-West Delhi. The Trinamool Congress fielded Tollywood actresses Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan from Jadavpur and Basirat seats respectively from where they recorded resounding majorities.
It is not just the fizz. Actors and actresses have represented political parties in elections, proving their worth by being elected and re-elected, knocking out political stalwarts in the bargain.
So what is it that propels parties to give tickets to celebrities? After all, most elected celebrities are criticised for not doing any work for their constituencies and being mostly absent from the Parliament. Superstar Dharmendra, for instance, was elected from Bikaner in 2004, but was flayed for hardly attending any Parliament sessions.
Is it just cine star power that accords the actors special status, or do other significant factors also come into play?
Winning BJP MP Hema Malini provides some clues. She told CNN-News18 in an exclusive interview it wasn’t just her star status that had made her a two-time MP. ‘I have been working for the BJP for the past 20 years. Seeing my hard work, they gave me a ticket in 2014. I did expect to be victorious again since the people of Mathura are happy with my performance.”
A few others, like the iconic Amitabh Bachchan who won with a massive mandate of 68.2%, resigned just three years into his term after his name cropped up in the Bofors scandal. Bachchan claimed that politics wasn’t his cup of tea and did not wait for his term to end.
It has been widely reported that when Rajesh Khanna faced defeat at LK Advani’s hands in New Delhi by a wafer-thin margin of 1,600 votes in 1991, he went into depression and refused to acknowledge his loss for a long time.
Malini, re-elected from Mathura, was given a second chance by the BJP despite committing several faux pas during the course of her tenure. In an interview, she said that although she had done “a lot of work”, she didn’t exactly remember what she had done.
Malini had raised eyebrows during the course of her campaign - described as a SUV-style campaign - with security personnel holding an umbrella over her head to shield her from the burning Mathura sun. She was trolled on social media for a photo opportunity in which she is seen harvesting crops in Mathura, a move critics alleged did not sit well with her non-performance in the constituency.
Malini is just one example of an actor proving to be a successful politician despite not being an efficient MP.
Incumbent BJP MP from Chandigarh, Kirron Kher, was also successfully voted back to power. Like husband Dharmendra who campaigned for Malini, Anupam Kher also hit the poll trail in Kirron Kher’s. And it has paid dividends.
Kirron Kher was widely trolled when she was caught making faces on camera when the Lok Sabha session was underway.
The Rajya Sabha has also had its fair share of prominent MPs who have been found missing in action. Rekha, Sachin Tendulkar and Jaya Bachchan have been accused of lack of attendance and participation in the Upper House despite being nominated for their celebrity status.
Winning BJP MP from Gorakhpur, Ravi Kishan, attributes his success to his mass appeal as a Bhojpuri actor. “When people see me, they recognize someone who’s fighting for Bhojpuri, as someone who established the Bhojpuri industry. They associate with me because I speak the same language as them. People reposed their faith in me and that is evident in the result,” he told this reporter.
Kishan insists that giving tickets to film stars is a pan-India phenomenon. ‘Even down south, actors like NTR and MGR have done really well for themselves and for their party,” he says.
Kishan believes that actor-turned parliamentarians like Vinod Khanna changed the face of Gurdaspur because “somewhere people like us have our feet on the ground. We have no godfathers. This is one of the reasons why people like Yogi Adityanath, Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, who themselves are self-made, feel we are up to the mark. Also I have been a star campaigner for BJP for the past two years in this area since Gorakhpur is the place I belong to, the land of my forefathers”.
Film critic Saibal Chatterjee says it is an actor’s charisma that makes him a viable candidate for political parties. “All these candidates have a steady fan following. It translates into votes. In India, the line dividing an actor's screen persona and his image in real life is often very thin and that helps the star enjoy a direct connection with the people. They do not bring any ideological leanings to the table.”
Chatterjee makes a pertinent point when he says that one of the reasons why political parties see more value in movie stars as poll candidates is because this reduces investment in groundwork at the constituency level.
Another noteworthy point is how barring a few examples, most star politicians have not been able to shed their image as a member of the acting fraternity and slip into the role of a politician.
A few such as Rupa Ganguly have taken on their party’s mantle and shed their previous star status. Another example is Smriti Irani, who stands out in stark contrast to others. Irani has successfully given up her image of an on-screen bahu and become a full time successful MP, defeating the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi on his home turf, Amethi, this time.
But these are just among a very few who have carved out a niche for themselves in the political sphere.
Notwithstanding the number of star candidates who have emerged with flying colours in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, there are also those who have come up a cropper.
Notable among them are Shatrughan Sinha, who lost from Patna Sahib against BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad, Jaya Prada who was in the eye of a storm for her war of words with SP rival Azam Khan, and Urmila Matondkar who campaigned glamorously through the streets of Mumbai North Lok Sabha seat on a Congress ticket.
Another upset was veteran actor Moon Moon Sen, who lost to singer-turned politician Babul Supriyo from Asansol in West Bengal.
But most of these defeats can be attributed to a mass saffron sweep that took the nation by surprise and left many candidates contesting on a Congress ticket groping in the dark.