Why Mamata has fielded so many celebs, stars

One in every four Trinamool candidates in Bengal is a celeb, mostly from the film world. A look at the strategy behind Mamata Banerjee’s masterstroke to contain faction fighting


Puja Bhattacharjee | April 28, 2014

Only the most ardent of fans would recognise Deepak Adhikari even in West Bengal. Unless, of course, you add a.k.a. Dev. These days, Adhikari, among the biggest stars reigning over Bengali cinema, is also known by another acronym, this one within a bracket - (TMC) – to point up the party he is representing from Ghatal Lok Sabha constituency of west Medinipur district in the ongoing elections.

Dev is hardly an exception this election season. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) has fielded 26 new faces, with 10 of them bringing to table the glamour quotient associated with them. Celebrities and film actors getting on the election bandwagon is hardly breaking news in India – south Indian matinee idols have been turning box office success into electoral victory for decades (see box for waves of actors on the eletion stage). Yet it is novel for West Bengal. The sheer number is certainly unprecedented.

So why have so many celebrities been fielded this time?

The TMC, experts say, has good reasons to. A party centred around one leader, its approach is authoritarian. Team Mamata needs the spotlight to keep the questioning glares off her, political observers contend. And what better spotlight than the arc light!

“If you see it from TMC’s vantage point, it is a very good political strategy. These celebrities were fielded due to factional problems (in TMC),” says Prof Dipankar Sinha of Calcutta University’s department of political science. “There were too many aspirants for the ticket, so an outsider was fielded.”

Talking specifically of Ghatal, where Dev, the star attraction, is drawing crowds like only chief minister Mamata Banerjee herself can muster, political activists (name withheld to protect identity) say infighting is the raison d’être behind fielding him. Specifically, the infighting between Mukul Roy – Trinamool Rajya Sabha member, former union railways minister and, most importantly, Banerjee’s Man Friday – and Shubhendu Adhikary, a TMC strongman of east Medinipur district, now trying to spread his influence to west Medinipur.

Fielding a candidate from outside is thus an attempt to tackle and arrest Adhikary’s growing influence, a party insider says, the logic being party workers, notwithstanding their allegiance to either Roy or Adhikary, would reconcile and campaign for a “star” willingly.

For Dev, personal ambition, too, seems to be a motivation. The actor has said in multiple interviews that he wants to be as influential in Tollywood as “Bumba-da” (senior actor Prosenjit Chatterjee) – and many say a member of parliament calling card would only help him.

Then there’s also the film industry politics that is playing out in mainstream politics. Sources claim that Shree Venkatesh Films, the production company that has bankrolled most of Dev’s ventures and said to be close to the TMC, pursued the actor to contest the elections.

The production house seems to have had little option, for after the fall of Saradha, the chit fund giant, the TMC trade union controls over 70 percent share in the Tollygunge film industry. In return for contesting the elections, sources say, the production house has assured Dev that his film career would be “secure”.

Mamata, the strategist
While critics often dismiss Mamata Banerjee as a maverick and rabble-rousing leader, sources say there is a method behind her apparent madness.

When half of West Bengal was anxious with news of yesteryear’s matinee idol Suchitra Sen’s ailment this winter, Banerjee kept the newshounds feeding – Sen was a notorious recluse post-retirement and journalists were persona non grata at the Sen household – as she visited the actress. Banerjee was the first person to reach the hospital after she died in January this year, helped make all arrangements necessary for the funeral, and even accorded the actress a 21-gun salute.

Banerjee’s was a constant presence with Sen’s grieving daughter, Moon Moon Sen, an actor in her own right, and renamed a Kolkata street as ‘Suchitra Sen Sarani’.

As winter gave way to spring, there was little surprise in TMC’s announcement that Sen would contest the Bankura Lok Sabha seat for the party. She will take on veteran CPI(M) leader Basudeb Acharia, who has represented the constituency for nine consecutive times since his victory in the 1980 elections.

Was this a planned masterstroke or ‘luck by chance’, to borrow from the title of a Bollywood film? Sen said it all when she told The Telegraph newspaper of Kolkata after addressing her first big rally in Bankura late last month, “A lot of people ask me why I entered politics…. When my mother was in hospital, a lady came and told me, ‘I don’t want to disturb you, but Suchitra Sen, for us, will always remain at the peak as a star’. And that lady was Mamata Banerjee.”

This, a political observer says, is a brilliant idea to control inner-party wrangles between a big leader and a locally powerful satrap. According to this observer, celebrity candidates do more than just take care of factional problems. While an MP has, in her/his disposal, a lot of funds and power, which might breed rebellion and rebels, celebrities are accountable to none other than the chief minister, who is the unquestioned supremo in her party. So it is easier to control them.

Those who have seen Banerjee over the years say she is more comfortable with people, including leaders from her own party, who are easy to control and are devoted to her; whose loyalty to the party and to her is unquestionable. Thus, they point out, Banerjee had no control over poet-singer and astute political observer Kabir Suman, who won the prestigious Jadavpur seat in 2009 but soon fell out with the party leader.

The TMC, observers say, is counting on star power combined with Banerjee’s own charisma to deliver the deadly cocktail this time around.

But are celebs really strong?
Celebrities, says psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, who teaches at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University, hardly ever stand for opposition parties. He adds that though Bappi Lahiri’s chances of winning are slim, there is a distinct possibility of a BJP-led government at the centre which is attracting the likes of him, or fellow singer Babul Supriyo or magician PC Sorkar to contest on BJP tickets. The logic being, even if they lose they stand to get important positions if the BJP comes to power.

“But celebrities do not keep winning elections. That is why their seats are given to others the second time around. They are not approachable for the common people, and devote little time to constituencies,” Chakraborty says, adding that Shatrughan Sinha and former cricketer Kirti Azad are “exceptions”.

Celebrities might add some appeal to the party but politics, and especially winning elections, depends on the grassroots organisational strength of the party they represent, he says. Chakraborty predicts Dev would win Ghatal seat by two lakh votes.

Though national award winning actress Debashree Roy defeated veteran CPI(M) leader and former state minister Kanti Ganguly from Raidighi seat in the 2011 assembly elections, the state CPI(M) leadership appears unperturbed with the hue and cry surrounding TMC’s celebrity candidates. The Left leaders pretend to leave it to the people to judge the more deserving candidate. “Initially people will be euphoric but it’s a temporary matter. When the real issues will start biting, the people will respond,” CPI(M) state secretariat member Robin Deb says.

He points out that even Amitabh Bachchan became an MP but had to quit politics for good. “There is no continuity or consistency in the way celebrities function,” he says. “It is the culture of TMC to promote leaders with no political experience. (But) our culture is to promote our frontal leaders.”

So will West Bengal, for long considered a politically conscious state, fall for the celeb charm this time around? That, dear reader, is one quick-quiz question whose answer will have to wait. Till May 16!

Actor to netas: the four waves

  • Biswanath Chakraborty of Rabindra Bharati University says the first wave was the caste-based identity politics of south India. He says actor-turned-politicians there had enough interaction with social life before taking the plunge. “NT Rama Rao had clear social and political views before launching Telugu Desam Party. J Jayalalithaa had a political background before joining politics,” he says.
  • But unlike their southern counterparts, north Indian actors hardly had any grassroots connect – Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna, among others. “In north India (read Bollywood), only Sunil Dutt had a vast experience of social work before joining electoral politics,” Chakraborty says. The same characteristic can be related to West Bengal this time.
  • The second wave came after Indira Gandhi’s assassination when Rajiv Gandhi was supported by stars such as Bachchan, Vyjayantimala and Vinod Khanna (who is contesting from Gurdaspur, Punjab, on a BJP ticket this time). The elections held in December 1984 saw broad-based participation of bureaucrats and celebrities to ensure wider participation, Chakraborty says.
  • The third wave was witnessed during the Ram Janmabhoomi period of the early 1990s. The BJP, Chakraborty says, cashed in on the popularity of the series Ramayana and made actors from the serial like Deepika Chikhalia (who played Sita) and Arvind Trivedi (played Ravan) candidates for the Lok Sabha elections.  Both became MPs.
  • The final wave came after 2004, and West Bengal is part of it. Political analysts attribute the success of this trend to people having little faith in traditional political leaders. They say that for political parties, a seat becomes reliable if they field a non-political personality. In 2009, which was a testing period for TMC, this trend was fully exploited by Mamata Banerjee. That year all TMC candidates from film and other related industries won the election. In 2011, popular actors like Debashree Roy and Chiranjeet again got success in assembly.

(This story appeared in May 1-15, 2014, issue of the magazine.)



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