New Delhi: Lights, camera, elections! With the poll season about to begin, film stars seem to be coming out of the political woodwork as it were —and a few cricketers and political chameleons are joining them in the spotlight as well.
Stroke power: Former cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin. Manish Swarup / AP
While the induction of Mohammed Azharuddin, the former captain of the Indian cricket team, into the Congress party on Thursday was the latest, the political grapevine indicates that there are more such high-profile political debuts in the offing.
Actor Sanjay Dutt announced his entry into politics by joining the Samajwadi Party (SP), Chetan Sharma, another former cricketer, has joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with news that Anil Kumble, who just quit international cricket, may follow.
However, Karnataka BJP president D.V. Sadananda Gowda had denied reports that the former national team leg spinner had been offered a ticket by the party.
Ahead of the 2009 general election, which is to take place before May, the ruling Congress party has set the tone by welcoming three former BJP members of Parliament (MPs) from Karnataka, H.T. Sangliana from Bangalore North, Manorama Madhwaraj from Udupi and Manjunath Kunnur from Dharwad South, who had defied their party during the 22 July trust vote in the Lok Sabha and supported the United Progressive Alliance government, to the party on 20 January.
On Thursday, Congress proudly flaunted ex-skipper Azharuddin, who officially joined the party at its headquarters in New Delhi. Although there is no official confirmation, Congress leaders indicated that Azharuddin—who was forced to quit the game following a match-fixing scandal in 2000—would be contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Andhra Pradesh.
Although political leaders admit that the new entrants, especially popular personalities, would boost the morale of workers, political analysts maintain that most of these last-minute inclusions are unlikely to force a dramatic swing in votes towards the parties they have joined.
While Dutt and Bhojpuri actor Manoj Tiwari have announced their decision to fight the elections on the SP ticket from the politically-crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has announced that ace shooter and Asian Games gold medallist Jaspal Rana would contest from the Tehri constituency of party-ruled Uttarakhand.
The flow of leaders to the major parties had become a routine affair just ahead of the 2004 elections, in which the then ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance suffered a surprise defeat. The BJP headquarters at 11, Ashoka Road had almost every week, in the run up to the April-May parliamentary elections, witnessed film stars or other popular personalities pledging support to the party.
While Hindi film star Dharmendra, who joined the BJP on 24 March 2004, contested and won Rajasthan’s Bikaner seat, his colleagues Jeetendra, Suresh Oberoi and Poonam Dhillon, and television actors such as Gajendra Singh Chauhan, who acted as Yudhishtira in the epic mega serial Mahabharat, were recruited to add glamour to the campaign.
The hype had also inspired some of the unhappy lot in the Congress to exit. These include former Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson and a long-term Congress leader Najma Heptullah, former Union minister Arif Mohammed Khan and MP Lakshman Singh, brother of senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh.
Although political observers criticized the BJP for “overdoing” it in 2004, the process of engaging film stars for their political campaign was done earlier too. Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had persuaded his friend and film icon Amitabh Bachchan to successfully contest the Lok Sabha elections from Allahabad in 1984.
In south India, the experience has been quite different, with charismatic actors emerging as prominent politicians; they include former Tamil Nadu chief ministers M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa, and N.T. Rama Rao, former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and founder of the Telugu Desam Party, currently the main Opposition party in the state.
Star power: Samajwadi Party’s new member Sanjay Dutt. Nand Kumar / PTI
“In election time, it is routine. It works both ways. While political parties are keen to create an election atmosphere and build an image as a sought-after party for the feel- good factor among its rank and file, people who have political ambitions join it,” said Congress general secretary B.K. Hariprasad.
According to the BJP’s Rajiv Pratap Rudy, it could be “strategic moves”.
“As election comes, there could be some new political combinations. The parties welcome new leaders to it on the basis of societal and geographical considerations,” Rudy said. However, he added: “It is not desirable to induct new personalities if they are joining for the purpose of a ticket. If they voluntarily support the party’s ideology, they are welcomed in parties, which have a national outlook and an organizational structure.”
Another BJP leader, who did not want to be identified, said they were keen to welcome prominent Muslim leaders and film stars to ensure a broader political appeal. “The BJP was then known as a Hindu party. We needed recognized people and leaders to appeal to the electorate. But the strategy did not work well,” admitted the leader.
N. Bhaskara Rao, political analyst and chairperson of New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Media Studies, was of the view that popular personalities joining party could help it to create a hype and boost morale. “But it does not help the parties in a big way in terms of votes. Because one instance or development does not bring votes.”