A star crossover in changing poll-time Kerala

A star crossover in changing poll-time Kerala

Dateline

Pathanapuram, an Assembly constituency in the south Kerala district of Kollam, could double as a scaled-down representation of what political analysts call the state’s increasing affinity to celebrity poll candidates.

The Congress has fielded popular actor Jagadeesh for the May 16 election against former minister and actor K B Ganesh Kumar who has drifted off the Congress-led ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) to join hands with the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the CPI(M). The BJP has taken a cue. Mou-nting a poll campaign with a never-before intent and campaign muscle, it has picked screen villain-comic actor D Raghu (popular as Bheeman Raghu) as its candidate.

The triangular contest is a star face-off, not necessarily played out on planks of intense political ideology. Till the formal announcement of their candidature, Jagadeesh and Raghu were not identified with their political affiliations while Ganesh – who has in the past severely criticised Left leaders, including CPI(M) veteran V S Achuthanandan – also represents a politics of convenience. Shifting loyalties is a recurring theme in political theatre; what really makes Pathanapuram stand out in its poll run-up is the star presence. Is change around the corner?

Kerala is a state where film stars have fa-iled to make a successful crossover to political roles. Even late Prem Nazir, one of Mala-yalam cinema’s most iconic stars, could not translate his screen charisma to political mi-ght while M G Ramachandran and N T Ramarao – his two contemporaries in Tamil and Telugu cinema – touched dizzying heights of popularity as political leaders. Jagadeesh says interpretations based on a perceived aversion to celebrities could be ske-wed. The actor feels it also depends on the candidate’s personal traits and his or her involvement in issues which affect people.

“I don’t feel it’s in many ways different from an engineer or a doctor contesting in an election. You can’t keep off someone based on his or her profession as long as the person has actively involved in issues of public concern. Yes, celebrities do come with an advantage because they don’t have to introduce themselves to the voter but it’s ultimately about how people rate these candidates based on what they could do if they win the election,” says the actor.

LDF convenor Vaikom Viswan says there has been a concerted effort to pick candidates from outside of conventional political spaces. This new focus could be traced to the result of a successful CPI(M) experiment in the 2014 Lok Sabha election – the party had backed actor Innocent, dubbed by critics as an outsider, as an independent candidate from Chalakudy. Innocent pulled off an impressive victory against Congress veteran P C Chacko.

Political crossfire

Among the CPI(M)-backed independent candidates is M V Nikesh Kumar (in Azhikode), a popular television journalist and son of late M V Raghavan, a Communist stalwart who later broke away to align with the Congress. In Kollam, popular actor Mukesh will contest as a CPI(M) candidate; he was picked over a CPI(M) strongman in the district – sitting MLA, veteran trade unionist and former minister P K Gurudasan. In Aranmula, a constituency caught in political crossfire over development issues, the CPI(M) is fielding another first-timer, journalist Veena George.

Nikesh has countered questions over his political foray by clarifying that this is a car-eer shift – “I’m quitting my profession as a mediaperson” – but there is dissent from within the CPI(M) over his candidature, most of it stemming from Raghavan’s post-rift issues with the party. Veena George has faced similar backlash in Aranmula where protests emerged in wall-posters. The support Mukesh garnered from within the party, in the face of opposition from the Gurudasan camp, also reflects CPI(M)’s resolve to mine possibilities of more Innocents. The party is learnt to have favoured the actor as a ‘compromise choice’; it’s a sign of times in which compromises dilute hardened political ideologies, feel political analysts.

The BJP’s decision to field cricketer S Sreesanth from Thiruvananthapuram has surprised many in the party. National leaders are learnt to have shot down apprehensions of the state leadership and favoured the cricketer. Some of the state leaders sounded clueless on the development even when the cricketer’s family gave interviews on his preferred constituencies. Sreesanth has dismissed allegations that his candidature is part of an arrangement in which the BJP-led Union government could extend him support in connection with the 2013 spot-fixing scandal: a Delhi court had acquitted him in the case last year.

In Wadakkanchery, veteran actress K P A C Lalitha’s proposed candidature for CPI(M) was opposed by local party activists. Lalitha backed out later, citing health reasons. The move to field actor Siddique as a Congress candidate from Aroor faced similar opposition. Debates in poll-season Kerala, perhaps for the first time, have also been about celebrities trying to break the jinx.

Political commentator N M Pearson says the rush for celebrity candidates exposes a new age in Kerala’s politics where lines between parties and coalitions are blurring. “The Congress and the UDF have already opened up to the possibility of ‘compromise candidates’. Now, the CPI(M) is operating on similar lines. Even on issues of development, there isn’t much that makes these parties any different,” he says.

Pearson agrees that a celebrity status should not be an in-built handicap but argues that the candidate should have basic credentials in public life. “In a recent television studio interaction, young students – most of them affiliated to Left parties – were arguing that a celebrity candidate need not always prove his commitment to his political cause. These arguments are no longer ideological. They reflect a new age of politics stripped of its intensity and history of struggle and resistance,” he says.

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