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.