Column | Politics of sweet nothings

Movie stars are a big draw at election time but beyond photo-ops and memes, what do they have to offer?

Updated - May 23, 2024 04:56 pm IST

Published - May 23, 2024 02:06 pm IST

(L to R) Rachana Banerjee, Kangana Ranaut, Hema Malini

(L to R) Rachana Banerjee, Kangana Ranaut, Hema Malini | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

If Mathura has its Dream Girl, Hooghly in West Bengal has its ‘Meme Girl’ this election. Actor, television anchor and one-time Miss Beautiful Smile winner Rachana Banerjee is the Trinamool Congress candidate. The incumbent MP there is another actor — Locket Chatterjee of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

On paper, Rachana had sounded like an excellent choice. She was the host of a hugely popular reality show called Didi No. 1, a game show targeting women. Many of her guests come from smaller towns outside Kolkata and have inspiring stories — the woman who carried gas cylinders on her back delivering them house to house or the woman who was abandoned by her husband but is now a successful entrepreneur. Rachana has a genuine rapport with them, a 1,000-watt smile and an easy laugh. Like a good politician, Rachana could mix with all kinds of people.

But on the campaign trail, Rachana has become the face that launched a 1,000 memes. After having doi/ yoghurt in Singur, Rachana said the doi was so good because the milk was excellent. The milk was excellent because the cows ate only the best grass. The grass was so green because the soil was superb. The irony is Singur is where the Tatas had tried to set up a factory on what had been farmland, an issue that helped propel Mamata Banerjee to victory in 2011. Now the farmers have gotten their land back but they complain the soil is no longer as fertile. Many say the government has forgotten them. Rachana’s opponent Locket Chatterjee caustically retorted, “She is right. Only cows graze in Singur, only grass grows there.”

Unfazed, Rachana tried to prove there’s plenty of industry too. “Who says there’s no industry? Why, when I first came here, all I could see was smoke and smoke. The roads were dark, only smoke coming out of chimneys!”

The memes exploded again but Rachana sportingly said, “Hats off to the meme makers. Any publicity is good publicity.”

Special appearance

The celebrity-fication of Indian politics has a long history. In his book Neta Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics, Rasheed Kidwai notes that “Indian cinema, since its inception, has been deeply influenced by politicians, beginning with Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.” Raj Kapoor films were very much selling the Nehruvian utopia.

What’s more recent is film stars jumping into retail politics. When Amitabh Bachchan ran against the veteran Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna in 1984, according to Kidwai, Bahuguna derisively scoffed it would be a “no contest” election showing how little he understood about the power of popular culture. Then Bachchan’s political career imploded, showing how little he understood about the treacherous political quicksand. Since then, some like N.T. Rama Rao have taken politics seriously as a career though many have just dabbled or party-hopped like Shatrughan Sinha. Dev Anand tried to launch his own party, as a crusade against corruption, saying: “If MGR could spell magic in Tamil Nadu, why not me in the whole country?” It flopped resoundingly.

Many celebrities just seem to be doing photo-op cameos in politics. Mathura’s MP Hema Malini kicked off her re-election campaign by posing in the fields with a sickle. Asked what she had done for the constituency, she said: “I have visited Mathura 250 times… it is not an easy job to come all the way from Mumbai. Coming and going... coming and going.”

In the rough-and-tumble of a political campaign, even the most polished actors can go off-script. But women have it harder. Sexism in politics is par for the course as a Mayawati or a Mamata Banerjee know only too well. But an actress in politics is an even more tempting target. Everyone has their knives out to prove that she must be a dumb doll or gungi gudiya as Indira Gandhi’s enemies once called her. When Kangana Ranaut was announced as the candidate from Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, social media was immediately flooded with old images of her in skimpy outfits, something that would never happen to a male star.

Pressing issues

Interestingly, this has been a campaign where women’s issues have often unexpectedly taken centrestage. Rape, sexual harassment and molestation charges have rocked campaigns from Karnataka to Delhi to West Bengal. But no one really cares about women’s safety per se, only the political capital to be gained by tarring opponents. While clashes broke out in West Bengal’s Sandeshkhali over allegations of sexual exploitation, former actor Nusrat Jahan, the MP, posted Valentine’s Day photos of herself in a red gown. She was later dropped from the candidate list.

No wonder a Rachana Banerjee prefers to talk sweet nothings about doi and chimney smoke instead. As a smoke and mirrors trick, it’s perfect for selling us dreams of milk and honey.

The writer is the author of Don’t Let Him Know, and likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.

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