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The Good And Bad Of Celebrity Regime In Indian Politics

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When the electoral process for the recently held general elections begun in India, the result was not supposed to be as crystal clear as we got on May 23. With the loss of the BJP in the bypolls and key assembly elections in few states, the NDA win was not that obvious. New political alliances were being forged and the NDA was to fight a loosely stitched but resurgent coalition of opposition parties. In such a bitterly fought electoral environment, it seemed to be a close call and political parties sought to capitalize on celebrities’ star power. As a result, a number of stars from Hindi movies, Bhojpuri cinema, and sports figures embellished the political arena.

From Delhi itself, we had several celebrity candidates, namely, Gautam Gambhir, Manoj Tiwari, Hans Raj Hans and Vijendra Singh who jumped into this battle. But, not all of them found the electoral success and big names such as Raj Babbar, Jaya Prada, Vijendra Singh, Nirahua or Dinesh Lal Yadav, etc. were among those whose star appeal did not attract the voters.

However, this is not a new phenomenon being witnessed in our democracy (or in world polity). Film and sports stars have been active in politics since long and many of them have left a legacy more of a politician than a celebrity. For example, former US President Ronald Reagan was actually a film star. Reagan’s era is credited for successfully ending the Cold War and bringing peace and has left its imprint on every aspect of American life (politics, diplomacy, culture, economics, etc).

Coming to India (especially the South), many celebrities have left a mark in Indian politics and the common string among them is the movies that catapulted them into politics. For example, MG Ramachandran aka MGR, regarded as one of most influential actors in Tamil cinema, rose to power and became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. After MGR, Jayalalithaa, another actor-turned-politician became Chief Minister. Jayalalithaa had formed a personality cult and was well known as Amma among her followers. Although infamous for her corruption, she is remembered for her public welfare in the state (including several subsidised Amma-branded-goods). Others in the same category are NT Rama Rao and M Karunanidhi.

It is not always easy for the celebrities to take up political challenges, especially for women. Often, they are presupposed to be lacking the qualities necessary to be a representative of the people. Let us take the candidature of Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan as an example. Both of them were new to the political battlefield. They were both trolled heavily on social media and sexist words were hurled at them. This continued even after they won and they drew backlash for their attire while posing in front of Parliament (but Gautam Gambhir was simply ignored for his casual photograph).

So, from the same angle, if we look at male celebrities and former celebrity politicians who are older than both these women, a similar kind of belligerence was absent. Their gender and profession were not brought into question when they entered politics. However, these two women triumphed over it and became MPs.

We also have the example of Smriti Irani who was persistent with her hard work in politics even after she lost the Amethi seat in 2014 and ultimately defeated Rahul Gandhi in 2019. Recently, she attended the cremation of her close aide who was shot dead in the constituency. This act was appreciated on social media and hailed as a beacon for women empowerment. It also has another politically meaningful message for those who forget their workers after ascending the throne of power.

But the main question is why political parties are fascinated by celebrities and prefer them over grassroots leaders who work hard to nurture a constituency? It is a repetitive aspect of Indian politics even though it is likely to cause heartburn among local leaders and give the opposition a moral weapon. Would it not be frustrating for those leaders to lose out the political space to these outsiders? Also, in such cases, it is quite natural that the enthusiasm of local workers or leaders would be less due to lack of personal attachment. Many factors can be attributed to the call for celebrities:

1) Being famous and in the public gaze for years, celebrities have already established an identity and need little work to get voters acquainted with them. People relate to their brand value and their voting behaviour gets influenced by it.

2) Although they are branded as ‘political outsiders’ by the opponents, they are far away from the shadow of awkward compromises, fake/unrealistic promises and endemic opportunism which falls flat on the traditional politicians. They become an acceptable option as they are new, invigorating and unpredictable (voters are convinced by the challenger of a need for change) – all attributes which an incumbent politician lack.

3) They have already built the connection with their audience, which politicians thrive to build with numerous campaigns. For example, the BJP ropes in Bhojpuri actors to woo voters in the regions like Eastern UP and Delhi, where a sizable Bihari migrant population exists.

4) Elections in India have become a sort of display of money power and a massive amount of money (directly/indirectly) is needed to contest elections. The seizure of cash during elections is testimony to it. In the recent general elections, more than ₹3000 crores have been recovered in the form of cash, alcohol and drugs. Also, this election has been described as the “most expensive election ever, anywhere.” Because of their larger appeal, celebrities don’t struggle much to generate money or many times their star appeal compensates for the money.

5) Also, they are not, in a majority of cases, a political threat to any of the other leaders. Refer to the example of Shatrughan Sinha. His fallout with his own party and decision to contest elections on a different party symbol didn’t prove to be a threat to Ravi Shankar Prasad. It is a perfect example where celebrities are dependent for their election on existing political parties and their individual brand does not offer an attractive option for the voters when they does not conform to the party lines.

6) Most celebrities take refuge to electoral politics when their professional career is on the decline, where they can optimize earned money and fame. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

From the above points, we can see that the electoral mechanism is similar to the consumer market where popularity, mass resonance, and glamour of celebrities are used to endorse the consumer products. In a similar way, all the parties try to persuade customers (voters) to buy their product (candidates) through different mechanisms. The credibility of the celebrity will likely translate to that of the political group that he/she is endorsing.

Celebrities have the ability to generate parasocial relationships (feelings of a personal connectedness despite the lack of direct contact) as individuals start to believe in the values, convictions and behaviors portrayed by the celebrities in their professional roles. Such identification influences the individuals’ behavior. Now, that entire concept is being used to endorse the electoral product which is the political party itself.

However, the life after occupying the electoral seat is not so easy and celebrity politicians need to position their past non-political life in the light of their new political role. The discrepancy between a celebrity politician’s past and current political life, championed political values and preferences will lead to credibility damage (often through selective media coverage of their past life). So, when celebrities get selected as MPs by using their popularity (bypassing grassroots-level politics), expectations are much higher and they now need to perform their electoral duty and not simply project their old public persona.

But, does it happen? The answer is not a clear yes. Most of the elected celebrities do not engage themselves in parliamentary activities/debates and have a below average attendance. A pertinent question arises: are they not inquisitive enough, although their social media presence suggests very different perspective? We can see the example of Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha. Although Parliament was graced with their presence, they failed to make an impact. Rekha had not asked a single question in the house in her nearly five years in the Rajya Sabha. However, Tendulkar fared better by asking 22 questions.

The duty of Rajya Sabha members includes raising questions on issues concerning the public and making those in power accountable. Can it not be considered as dereliction of duty on their part or can we conclude that they didn’t heed to their moral responsibility to further the pro-democratic changes? For example, news of government apathy towards sportspersons has become a routine affair and there is a lack of good sports facilities with world class infrastructure. In such a scenario, a ‘distinguished sportsperson’ in Rajya Sabha was expected to raise these issues. But, it didn’t happen.

Why does it happen? Most often, the lines between the entertainment/sports industry and politics blur, to the point where people don’t know or are not able to comprehend whether they’re voting for the celebrity or the characters they’ve played (reel life). And when they do so, they should stop being hypocrites and have no moral right to complain when these celebrities fail to live up to reel life reputations.

What can be the solution? Either we stop allowing them to enter the electoral fray or we vote on the basis of real life experience (for example, what they have done for the social causes, what is their stand on the critical problems being faced by the country). The first option is absolutely undemocratic and hence should be more informed and curious about the latter. Hence, the basis of our predictions of moral rectitude expressed by electing those celebrities should be well informed and reasoned.

From few examples, it cannot be concluded that celebrities’ entry in the electoral arena is necessarily detrimental to modern society and to our political system. It offers the potential to reinvigorate Indian politics by introducing new blood and new ideas. Unlike traditional politicians, they typically are less obliged to vested political interests because of their own wealth or ability to raise money. Thus, in the political discourse, they can act like autonomous social agents who can bring a change in the society. Powerful and timely conversations can bring about change and celebrities can play a big role in it.

However in India, celebrity politicians are rarely known for taking a stand on politically divisive issues and matters that have adverse socio-cultural consequences for society. Most often their reel heroism, courage and integrity become the parameters on the basis of which people elect them. However, the same values and ethos rarely get reflected in the real political life and remain restricted to reel life. Here, I am not suggesting or concluding that celebrities can’t become good politicians. Rather, I am just postulating that being a celebrity can’t be the sole criterion for electing them. We should not deduce from their non-political performance (be it cricket or Bollywood or anything else) that their political performance will also be a blockbuster.

One of the key determinants for the success of democracy is the trust factor between the electors and the elected representatives.  However, this relationship is rather paradoxical. On one hand, trusting the elected representatives makes us vulnerable to their power. On the other hand, governments can hardly act (or act in a less bold manner), unless a particular trust in candidate/party, or policy and a general trust in the basic institutions exists. A lack of trust compromises the willingness of citizens to respond to government policies and can fundamentally challenge the quality of representative democracy. Hence, they must tap into a considerable reservoir of trust which is important for the success of a wide range of policies that depend on behavioural responses from the public.

Trust is persistent when the confidence of electors stems from faith in the moral character of candidates. Here lies the fault line in the Indian democracy when we see politicians with criminal background or charges with corruption cases entering the temple of democracy. A decline in trust is one of the reasons for giving tickets to celebrities.

Celebrities can take this as an opportunity to be agents of social change; they can raise the bar for Indian politicians and increase the trust factor between the politicians and the citizenry. We all know the Pulse Polio campaign where Amitabh Bachchan’s voice was instrumental in getting families to immunise their children against the virus. It is a perfect example of effectively using the star power to drive home a social message.

Today, many celebrities are harnessing their fan base and star power to speak out about social justice and promote causes ranging from fighting poverty, environmental degradation, human rights violations, gender-based violence, etc. For example, Kajol is associated with the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat campaign. With health and sanitation being a major concern in India, this campaign can play an important role in sending across the relevant messages to the maximum number of people.

I am not concluding that traditional politicians can’t do this, but celebrities have a larger reach. And, in speaking out about causes they care about, they foster a conversation which attracts the attention of media, general public, policy makers, etc. The million number of retweets or share or being watched on YouTube is testimony to the fact that their messages resonate with the masses and that the values addressed do get internalized.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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