A couple of weeks ago, the legendary Tamil actor Rajinikanth announced his entry into Indian politics. At the recent Golden Globe awards, Oprah Winfrey’s powerful speech has led to speculations about her running for the next Presidential elections.
But unlike in India, not everyone in the USA has supported the idea of another celebrity President. Many online media platforms published articles questioning people’s fascination with celebrities running for political office and whether it is in the country’s best interest, especially after Donald Trump, who has destroyed the idea that a popular figure from the outside the world of politics can serve the country better compared to a politician who has considerable experience having spent years serving the country.
India and the US are going through a similar political turmoil. Both countries have right-wing governments that, on one hand, are pushing policies that favour the super rich, but on the other hand, have created an environment that encourages the rise of religious extremist groups. I believe both Trump and Modi have used their celebrity status to create a wave.
While Trump gained his celebrity status because of his show “The Apprentice”, Modi is a celebrity superstar in his own right. In a way, I think he is a brilliant actor who created a narrative about himself being a tea seller who educated himself, went on to become the chief minister of Gujarat and created the so-called Gujarat model. I will consider Modi as a celebrity actor till someone shows me a picture or him selling tea, and his graduation certificate is issued under RTI.
The primary opposition parties in both countries have lost their major corporate sources of funding and therefore cannot galvanise their cadres and groom mass leaders who are needed to stand up and protest almost every day against the right-wing governments. Most of the media networks are run by corporates that support the right-wing government in exchange for favourable policies and laws. Their coverage of opposition party protests and press conferences is limited, if any.
Some channels spend more time bashing the opposition party leaders rather than focus on the ruling party and the government. In such a situation, it is almost impossible for an individual who has worked for years in politics and for society, to become a national leader and challenge leaders like Modi and Trump. I think anyone who wants to rise to that level, needs to have crores of disposable wealth and should be a popular national figure who can draw media attention and crowds, just like Rajinikanth and Oprah.
In the past, celebrity political leaders have had their fair share of success. But we cannot be electing them in this millennial era. Why? Because they seem to personify everything that is wrong with the system. When we watch these celebrities on TV, we don’t see their true character, much less their political and social ideologies. We see them play fictitious characters or drape a persona which we, the public, project our own fantasies, our dreams and our fears upon.
We blur the lines between who these celebrities really are and archetypes of the heroes, saviours, idealists, lovers, fathers, fairy godmothers, underdogs, etc that they play on screen. Such a strong impression is created in the collective unconscious that even revelations of scams don’t dent the mass following that these celebrity politicians enjoy.
In 1997, former chief minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalitha’s Poes garden residence was raided where 800 kg (1,800 lb) silver, 28 kg (62 lb) gold, 750 pairs of shoes, 10,500 sarees, 91 watches and other valuables were recovered. In spite of this people voted for her and she went on to become the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
I believe that celebrity politicians are not the brilliant legislators we deserve. They are not even close. Their intentions may be genuine, but just like there is no shortcut to being a top actor, there is no shortcut to being a good legislator. There are many genuine people who spend years serving the public and have a far greater understanding of the ground realities and how to make and implement policies which have an impact on our society, economy and environment.
Celebrities may be great at saying all the right stuff on TV or in public – after all, that’s why they are top celebrities. But that should make us even more cautious of celebrities. We must understand that celebrities stand for values and policies which may not be in the interest of the greater sections of the population. It’s rare to see a celebrity endorse an increase in wealth tax or not buy more than one house.
Should we believe that celebrities can change their ideology, values and beliefs once they enter politics?
Having said that, celebrities do have a role to play in politics. India has seen a new wave of young politicians like Shehla Rashid and Jignesh Mevani who have a deep understanding of our country’s political values of socialism, secularism, justice, liberty and equality, and are inspiring thousands of young Indians to join politics and become political leaders.
These young leaders are far more likely to uplift millions of Indians from poverty, reduce the economic gap and push for socialist policies in the larger public interest. Celebrities need to endorse these young leaders and help them raise clean funds for their elections, call out what is wrong with the system and influence people of our country across party lines to bring about change to fix and improve the system. We need to learn from the mistakes of the previous generations of being mesmerised by corporate-backed actors and celebrities who keep us entertained and distracted from the suffering of many of our fellow citizens.