Brand Equity, Voter Connect and Mass Appeal: Why Fielding Film Stars is Sure Hit at Ballot Box Office

Film stars can get away with being as sensationalist and dramatic as they like, because that is what audiences expect from them.

Sunny Deol, aka Singh Sahab the Great, is contesting from Gurdaspur. He is the latest among the Poster Boys of the BJP. By giving the ticket to The Hero, the BJP has provoked the Krodh of Kavita Khanna, whose candidature was overlooked.

She was Betaab for a ticket and is now being Ziddi and threatening to contest as an Independent. Whether her Dushmani will be Ghatak to the Jeet of the Bollywood Yodha remains to be seen.

What prompts a successful Bollywood star to cross the Lakeer into the Paap ki Duniya of politics? After all, politics, like Pyaar, Koi Khel Nahin. It takes a lot of Himmat but the BJP believes he has the Zor to take on the formidable sitting Congress MP Sunil Jakhar and emerge as the Champion.

Meanwhile, his Dillagi co-star Urmila Matondkar has joined the Congress and is contesting from Mumbai North. Step-mom Hema Malini is defending her turf in Mathura, while his Zabardast co-star Jaya Prada is back in Rampur, this time waving the BJP flag. His reel-life brother in Ghayal, Raj Babbar, is contesting from Fatehpur Sikri.

Daddy Dharmendra’s Dost Shatrughan Sinha and his wife are also in the fray. So are a clutch of regional film stars. Padman Akshay Kumar has not taken the political plunge, but his star power was leveraged in an on-air interaction with the Prime Minister.

Celebrities have the advantage of being non-politicians, in a scenario where politicians are Badnam and regarded as Chaalbaaz and Lootere. They are instantly recognisable, so they do not have to expend time and effort in connecting with their constituents.

Voters tend to cast their ballots for familiar faces. Most often, because they do not know the candidate, they vote by default for the party. For politicians, it takes several campaigns to build the kind of brand equity that film stars enjoy.

The other big edge celebrities have is their comfort in front of audiences and ability to play to the crowd. They can get away with being as sensationalist and dramatic as they like, because that is what audiences expect from them. They can don the role of 'neta' with aplomb, like any other script.

A celebrity is the best option for a political party when it lacks an inspiring candidate. But it works both ways; stars attract more media attention and are therefore more vulnerable to scandal. Amitabh Bachchan, who won from Allahabad in the Congress wave of 1984, resigned after his alleged links with the Bofors scam became public. His wife, Jaya Bachchan, took up the political mantle in 2004.

In the voters' perception, the star's personality and the characters he has played may merge, to the point that he is casting his ballot as much for Major Kuldip Singh Chandpuri (Border) or Tara Singh (Gadar) as Sunny Deol the politician.

When it comes to attracting votes, film stars from the south have an edge. They are literally deified, with milk being poured over their cut-outs and rituals being conducted for their well-being by highly organised fans' associations.

A temple was famously built for actor Khushboo, while a 'sahasra lingam' at the Kotilingeshwara Temple in Kolar, Karnataka, is dedicated to Tamil superstar Rajnikanth. The late superstar-politicians MGR and Jayalalitha, too, have temples in their memory.

Since 1969, Tamil Nadu has always been ruled by a chief minister linked to the film industry, or by a nominee who acted as a stand-in: M Karunanidhi, J Jayalalitha and the legendary MGR, whose death sparked suicides and riots.

The adoration for film stars is almost as pronounced in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. So great was the late NT Rama Rao's hold on the hearts and minds of the people that he swept the Congress out of power in 1983, in a matter of months. His legacy continues to this day, through his son-in-law.

Latter-day Telegu actor-politicians, such as Chiranjeevi and Vijayshanti, have been less successful. Now, Prakash Raj is trying his luck.

Sunny faces a tough Imtihaan in Gurdaspur, where he will have to engineer an 11 per cent swing in favour of the BJP. It will take more than Dishkiyaoon to win over the 44 per cent Sikh population and strike Punjab Gold, after the defection of SGPC member SS Sekhwan from SAD. It may be recalled that Deol's 2005 action-comedy Jo Bole Sau Nihal was panned by the SGPC and literally bombed (leaving scores injured).

On the other hand, like Big Brother Jakhar, he is a Jat Hindu and can substantially dent the Congress' 48 per cent Hindu vote bank. Let the Khel begin. Rok Sako To Rok Lo.

(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)