Mumbai: When are you getting married and who is your ideal match?” Monica Satyavadi, 13, asked Rahul Gandhi during his visit to her school in Bhopal last month. The 38-year-old member of Parliament (MP) and general secretary of the Congress party apparently turned a deep shade of crimson before answering. “I really don’t know when I’m going to get married,” said Gandhi, amid laughter from his audience. “Hopefully, soon.”
The interaction made it to the front pages of some national dailies, television news bulletins and the Indian edition of People magazine. In May, Gandhi invited cricketer Sachin Tendulkar to the finals of the Rajiv Gandhi Twenty20 cricket tournament in Amethi, which he introduced in the family’s home constituency in Uttar Pradesh this year. The tournament, which reportedly involved 1,857 teams, 30,000 youth and 3,714 cricket bats, was splashed across all key media platforms. More recently, Gandhi was seen accompanying his mother, Sonia Gandhi, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
With the 2009 general elections round the corner, a number of political parties are using every opportunity to be seen and heard. What has changed now is that more and more political parties and their star candidates are seeing the importance of being associated with non-political issues or platforms, and are projecting themselves as multi faceted personalities. It is no longer uncommon for them to use public relations agencies to manage their image.
The interesting thing, experts say, is that along with a growing willingness to experiment, there is also a changing lexicon of political correctness.
A politician is increasingly comfortable with the idea of revealing a private persona—a trend that is also driven by the fact that constituents are more accepting of this new persona.
“There is a major trend towards voyeurism, of wanting to know more about the whole person, rather than what is a narrow definition of the role,” says Arvind Sharma, chairman of India sub-continent, Leo Burnett. “This creates challenges as well as opportunities for celebrities.”
Take railway minister Lalu Prasad, who recently appeared as a guest on Star Plus’ prime time television show Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hain? with actor Shah Rukh Khan. He won Rs1 crore in prize money for the Railway Employees Fund and an opportunity to feature in Khan’s home production. The episode had a television rating point (TRP) of 4.4, substantially higher than the episode featuring Bollywood’s hot couple Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor.
Similarly, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje agreed to be a guest on the reality show, Amul Star Voice of India. She spent the evening encouraging participants and exchanging pleasantries with the royal family of Jaipur, who were also present. Raje was also seen cheering the Rajasthan Royals team during the Indian Premier League matches in Jaipur.
“Much in the same way that Shah Rukh Khan endorses products on television, they (politicians) are becoming brand ambassadors for their brand of politics,” says B.G. Verghese, a columnist and and visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Media, especially celebrity-crazy television journalism, provides the access. “All they have to do is sit in front of the camera and spout (their ideology). A lifetime of padyatras will not get you that kind of publicity,”says Verghese.