Are the political parties reacting to signals from the public about a change in attitude?

In Kerala elections celebrities rush in where politicians fear to tread
Voices Kerala Elections 2016 Tuesday, March 29, 2016 - 08:32

Is it going to be celebrity time for Kerala voters this May 16? Never before have so many from not only the film world, but also from cricket and even the visual media, entered the fray to represent the people in the legislative assembly.

And, it isn’t just one or two regional parties that are out to try their luck by changing their horses in the race. The candidate lists of the main parties, ie, Congress, CPI(M) and BJP contain names of actors, some of whom cannot even be counted as ‘stars’.

No real stars

Are the political parties reacting to signals from the public about a change in attitude? Kerala politicians used to proudly claim that unlike her sister states from the South, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, Kerala has a politically conscious population which never fell for the glamour of apolitical persons from the glamour world.

It was a Tamil film actor, originally from Kerala, MG Ramachandran (MGR), for whom the multitude of fans used to throng the theatres even before the sun rose, who had inaugurated the age of the film stars taking over political positions in Tamil Nadu. That was in the late sixties.  His heroine Jayalalithaa later became his political successor, and still is Chief Minister, as well as the most popular leader of Tamil Nadu. But, neither MGR nor his party (earlier DMK and later AIADMK) could influence the voters of Kerala, and nobody from the film fraternity could prove his mettle as a political leader.

Kerala has been politically conservative or progressive, depending on which position you take, in electing film stars.

It was in 1965 that a film personality first successfully contested the election; and that was Ramu Kariat, not an actor but a film maker, famous for the national award winning film Chemmeen. He won the Nattika constituency as a left-backed independent but was unlucky that the assembly was dissolved as no party had the majority to form a government.

The superstar of those days, Prem Nazir was a Congress supporter but did not yield to pressure to contest. Later, Lenin Rajendran, a left-leaning film director close to CPI(M), contested the Ottappalam Lok Sabha seat twice in the 1990s, but could not win. Murali was the other star to test the poll waters and end up in disappointment. The only film actor who could get elected to the Kerala assembly is KB Ganesh Kumar, surely not on strength of his fan following.

Many observers think that the present fascination to field film personalities, stems from the unexpected victory that comedian and film actor, Innocent, scored against prominent Congress leader and parliamentarian PC Chacko in 2014 from the Chalakkudy constituency. There are others who feel that political parties are trying shortcuts to victory by fielding popular celebrities, because politicians, as a class, have lost their credibility and have become unpopular.

This may or may not be true but looking at the number of such persons being brought in to contest, it can safely be concluded that parties are running short of new tricks and novel ideas through which they can win the confidence of the voters.

MGR, Jayalalitha and NT Rama Rao were very popular film stars with large fan followings and so could carry their popularity to the political arena too. And their very presence, even without a clear political agenda was enough to move the whole state.

But among those trying their luck in Kerala this time, none can be called a superstar, or a star even. An exception is Suresh Gopi who still is one of the four or five most popular actors in Malayalam cinema. He had expressed his support for the Narendra Modi brigade, from the very beginning.

It was then reported that he was offered a plum post in the government’s cultural administration setup, but nothing actually materialised. A disappointed Suresh Gopi predictably rejected offers to be a candidate in the capital Thiruvananthapuram. Well known for his politically aggressive punch dialogues in the films, the actor was sullen and silent for some time, but is now back in the campaign. 

Will any cricketer do?

The most surprising choice of the BJP is that of controversial cricketer, Sreesanth, who might not have even stopped to hear a BJP street meeting in the past. His selection as BJP candidate in the Thiruvananthapuram constituency surprised the state party leadership too. They had never even discussed his name.

He was parachuted into the list by the central leadership, perhaps with the hope that a cricketer must be popular among the newer generations of voters of the state. However, whether these voters are so apolitical as to vote for any cricketer, is a debatable point.

Sreesanth is now called a tainted cricketer, though the courts dropped charges of match fixing against him. The lifelong ban on him still remains. The courts had exonerated him for want of sufficient hard evidence, but BCCI’s enquiry had found him guilty and hence the ban.

The question is simple and straightforward — Can ‘the party with a difference’ select such a person, a novice at that, to represent the party in the legislature?

Here is what Wikipedia says about his other merits — “Sreesanth is noted for his exuberant and emotional behavior, especially whilst appealing for and celebrating wickets. He has been warned several times for indiscipline both on and off the cricket field, and frequently fined for violating the player conduct guidelines of the International Cricket Council. In October 2009, the BCCI issued a final warning to Sreesanth that any repetition of his code of conduct violations might result in drastic actions such as a ban from domestic cricket. Subsequently, the Kerala Cricket Association also issued a final warning over repeated violations of their code of conduct ….”

Perhaps this is enough for the BJP to justify its selection of Sreesanth to represent it in the Kerala assembly, infamous for the unruly, violent behavior of its members!

Is going against cadre wishes wise?

The new phenomenon has triggered off protests among the grass roots activists of the Congress and Left fronts, and of the BJP. Poster campaigns, social media postings and even open processions are taking place. These are all unprecedented at least for cadre based parties like CPI(M).

People are fed up with career politicians. But, are celebrities with untested characters or undependable histories the answer?

It is true; there are dozens of constituencies in Kerala where the vote difference between the two fronts is less than one percent.  A small shift in the voter preference can make or unmake a government. So parties can leave no stone unturned. But, in the past limits were set beyond which parties hesitated to go.

Now, it seems there are no limits. Anyone can be fielded if there is any possibility of him or her fetching a few extra votes.

The wisdom of ignoring party workers who might have sacrificed a lot for the party, and choosing persons who might not have contributed anything to the party or society, will definitely be put to the test in the polling booths.

Elections are not film-award jury meetings. People vote for persons capable of taking care of their interests. Will they opt for high flying celebrities or the time-tested men and women next door? 

NP Rajendran is senior journalist and columnist for Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi, based in Kozhikode


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