|The time has come for all good men — and women — to come to the aid of the party. Sonia Sarkar finds that as elections draw close, parties and some well-known figures are wooing each other
Elections are in the air. Hoardings line the roads, prime ministerial candidates hop across the country to address the masses and recorded messages on the phone canvass for votes.
There's another sign of the 2014 parliamentary elections. Political parties are looking at well-known men and women — and vice versa — as possible candidates for the polls.
Consider this: Information technology (IT) honcho Nandan Nilekani is likely to fight an election from Bangalore. General V.K. Singh, the just retired army chief, recently shared the dais with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Athlete Krishna Poonia may fight an election as a Congress candidate. And Olympian Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore has resigned from the army to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
"Excellence in sports is limited to personal achievement but it doesn't excite me anymore. Politics will complete my life," Rathore, 43, stresses.
Alliances between celebrities and political parties are not new. Over the years, a great many icons have joined politics. The list includes Sunil Dutt, Vinod Khanna, Dharmendra, Raj Babbar, Shatrughan Sinha, Govinda, Kirti Azad and Mohammed Azharuddin. People have come in from other fields too — such as the army (B.C. Khanduri and J.F.R. Jacob), diplomacy (Shashi Tharoor) and science (Raja Ramanna). "It is a marriage of convenience," says Shatrughan Sinha of the BJP.
At the core of this arrangement is a political party's desire to rake in more seats, and a well-known personality's wish to make a mark — usually when on the verge of retirement.
"Celebrities are already seen as heroes in the public eye, so this makes the seat winnable for political parties. For celebrities, it is a shortcut to more fame and the unlimited power that come along with politics," explains Dhirubhai Sheth, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Indeed, in these cynical times, when politicians are being roundly castigated for corruption, crime and communalism, the outsiders are often seen as whiffs of fresh air. "We need them to give a boost to politics. They have both visibility and credibility, which politicians often lack," Congress spokesperson P.C. Chacko states.
That could be the reason the Congress plans to offer the south Bangalore seat to Nilekani, chief of the Unique Identification Development Authority of India.
"South Bangalore is a constituency of technocrats and for them, Nilekani needs no introduction. We wanted someone like him to fight the BJP's candidate, Ananth Kumar, who has been winning the seat," Chacko adds.
Like the Congress, which fielded actors Rajesh Khanna and Sunil Dutt, the BJP has a long history of showcasing candidates with no political backgrounds but immense public appeal. During the Ram Janmabhoomi wave — when Ramayan and Mahabharat aired on Doordarshan — its pantheon included Deepika "Sita" Chikhalia, Arun "Ram" Govil and Arvind "Ravan" Trivedi. Among the many Bollywood stars it has successfully — or not so unsuccessfully — projected are, apart from Sinha, Hema Malini and Dharmendra.
"We welcome them because they have already proved their calibre in certain fields," says BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman.
Not many, however, have had memorable stints in politics. Chikhalia, who faded out soon after her debut, describes her move as an "accidental jump" into politics. "I was seen as the perfect candidate to promote the ideology of the party then," Chikhalia, who won from Vadodra in 1991, says.
Smriti Irani of the BJP — who made her mark on television as Tulsi — is among the few who segued into politics effortlessly. Though she lost to Kapil Sibal of the Congress from Delhi in 2004, she is the articulate face of her party.
"It's all about the meeting of minds," Rathore maintains. "I chose the BJP because I believe in its philosophy of nationalism, cadre-based politics and good leadership."
For political parties, celebrity endorsement is important. "Celebrities are in demand because of their ability to communicate with the people," explains Chakshu Roy, head of the outreach team of the Delhi-based PRS Legislative Research.
But popularity doesn't always translate into votes. Actor and Union tourism minister K. Chiranjeevi, who contested the Andhra election in 2009, had lakhs of people attending his rallies. But his erstwhile Praja Rajyam Party could win only 18 of 294 Assembly seats.
Often, once the election is over, the newcomers find that they have no place in the party hierarchy. They face resentment from party members who've worked hard over the years in the hope of contesting from a particular constituency.
"Politicians want stars to get the crowd but they don't really want them to rise," Sinha says.
Shooter and Asian Games gold medalist Jaspal Rana agrees. "I was 19 and wanted to be a youth leader when I joined the BJP. But seasoned politicians don't let others grow," says Rana, who is now with the Congress.
This, a source close to Poonia says, worries her too. Though overtures have been made by the Congress, she is not clear about the offer. "She would leave her job in the railways and join the Congress only if it promised her a good role in the party," says the source.
Chikhalia's story may deter Poonia. The ex-actress recalls that her equation with the BJP changed soon after she won the seat. "Gradually, I realised that the party fielded me because it wanted the seat. Once the seat was won, its attitude towards me changed. I was always seen as an outsider."
Some newbies, on the other hand, claim they have no expectations of the party. "I am here to serve the people in the manner my party would like me to," holds Diya Kumari of the erstwhile royal family of Jaipur, who has just joined the BJP.
Politicians stress that in this dog-eat-dog world, only the fittest survive. "If the individual has acumen, he or she gets an opportunity (to rise)," Sitharaman holds. Sinha adds that newcomers need to understand the rules of the game. It took him many years to mature as a politician, he says.
Political leaders add that the so-called "outsiders" often don't know how parties function. "Many of them think that if they have won a seat, they should get a ministerial berth. They don't understand the dynamics of politics," Chacko complains.
Some of them are hardly seen in Parliament. Sinha and Hema Malini, who asked 117 questions and participated in six debates over four years, are exceptions. Others — such as Dharmendra and Azharuddin — have contributed little to policy or polity.
PRS Legislative Research reports that Azharuddin asked five questions and participated in two debates between June 2009 and September 2013. Chiranjeevi neither participated in a debate nor asked a question.
The electorate has to wait to see how the season's new politicians will perform.