Election 2014 has seen a fair number of musicians declaring their political leanings more openly than they are usually wont to. In the past, political movements and parties have often enjoyed the active support and participation of musicians and artistes. But generally it is rare to come across musicians in India, particularly those from the world of Hindustani classical music, who would openly admit to supporting any one political ideology consistently.

Most prefer to claim that they are apolitical, and that the pursuit of artistic perfection and excellence makes them steer clear of the mundane reality and murky grime of politics. Previously, movements like the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta) and organizations like the 25-year-old Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) have witnessed an association, sometimes fleeting, with a large number of musicians. Both collectives are known for their leftist leanings though the artistes who performed under their auspices often retained individual political loyalties or chose to be ambivalent.

But as the drama of a mammoth democracy going to polls plays out, what does the participation of musicians in these elections reveal?

Lata Mangeshkar with Modi. Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times
Lata Mangeshkar with Modi. Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times

As political parties began to declare their candidates, one witnessed the inclusion of popular musicians like music director-singer Bappi Lahiri and playback singer Babul Supriyo in the political arena. That they have little or no record of public service, activism or experience in governance seems to matter little, either to the party that has inducted them or to themselves. Perhaps they were encouraged by the enormous acceptance, albeit short-lived, of other freshman politicians, including several candidates from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

But in the event that they are elected, let us hope that the musicians-turned-politicians pitch perfectly in matters of governance as well. Without wishing to take away either from their immense eminence as star musicians, or from their genuine desire to serve the nation by joining politics, it would be reasonable to ask the public if they would commit their fate to the hands of a completely inexperienced pilot who sang beautifully. And if hypothetically they would not want to board a flight piloted by a fabulous singer who had no knowledge whatsoever of flying, why then would they wish to hand over the reins of a constituency, state or nation to inexperienced hands?

In the not-so-distant past, iconic singer-composer-activist Bhupen Hazarika contested an election in 2004 on a BJP ticket and was unsuccessful. Activists Mayur Chetia and Nayanjyoti’s detailed analysis of Hazarika’s ambivalent political alliances, “Taking the Jajabor’s Journey Forward—The troubled legacy of Bhupen Hazarika", makes for a stunning read on Kafila, a blog on politics and culture. More recently, singer-songwriter-activist Kabir Suman contested the 2009 election on a Trinamool Congress ticket but subsequently became estranged from the party’s volatile leader, Mamata Banerjee, and has since had a blow-hot-blow-cold relationship with the party.

However, both Hazarika and Suman had a history of engaging with social and political issues which prepared them for an entry into active politics. It is the lack of such an engagement that makes the candidature of our star musicians seem premature.

The same could be said of star singer Daler Mehndi’s entry into politics in the recent assembly elections in Delhi. He became a member of the Congress party but is no longer seen or heard campaigning for the party in the Lok Sabha election.

At Varanasi, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Modi and his campaign managers decided that they wanted a prominent classical musician from the town to propose his name for the seat. Reports would suggest that they first solicited endorsement from a member of shehnai legend Bismillah Khan’s family. A rejection led them to the threshold of senior vocalist Chhannulal Mishra, who agreed to propose Modi’s name.

It is, of course, entirely the prerogative of the artiste to decide whether or not to propose the name of an individual, but having agreed to do so, it would also seem reasonable to believe that the proposer believed in the worthiness of the candidate and in the ideology of the political party.

Mishra’s interviews to news channels would indicate otherwise, for he completely washes his hands off any commitment to the BJP or Modi and states matter-of-factly in his unmistakably Banarasi style that he would have been equally willing to propose Sonia Gandhi’s or Mulayam Singh’s names had they requested him to do so, but agreed to propose Modi’s name because Modi’s aide Amit Shah reached his doorstep before anyone else.

If this candid declaration reveals a fickleness that is laughable, it also lays bare the tokenism of the BJP’s scripted campaign tactics.

That musicians are willing to participate openly and unabashedly in the electoral process cannot be termed anything but a healthy trend. That they often choose to be as unmindful of political ideology as the fickle breed of politicians they wish to replace is unfortunate and regrettable.

Meanwhile, as politicians stage roadshows (they are no longer called rallies, mind you) and turn themselves into performers using might, money and stagecraft, performers and professional musicians other than those with political ambitions are left to wonder whether art, culture, music will remain marginalized after 16 May, with no takers for the culture portfolio even with so many musicians staking a claim in politics.

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns