The passing away of veteran Bollywood actor Vinod Khanna on Thursday, April 27, is as much as a loss for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it is for the country's film fraternity.
Khanna was one of those rare actor-turned-politicians who had quite an engaging career in politics for nearly two decades and the BJP would miss him while heading to Punjab in the next Lok Sabha election scheduled two years from now. The saffron party lost power in the northern state despite the Narendra Modi wave last month and to regain its touch there in the future elections, Khanna would have been a key player.
Khanna, who came closest to challenge the aura of Amitabh Bachchan in Bollywood in the 1970s and 1980s, had joined the BJP in 1997 and on that occasion, he had said that he was convinced in the saffron party's Hindutva philosophy which he termed "secular" but was "misquoted" and "misinterpreted".
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Khanna was also unapologetic about the fact that he was a member of the BJP even if his parents had been supporters of the Congress. Khanna's explanation was that it was about the Congress after Independence and he thought the party had only got turned into a money-making machinery later.
Khanna's admission about the country's star power feeling more influenced by the BJP and not the Congress was forthright. A number of his contemporaries and other lesser actors also joined the BJP in the 1980s and 1990s and though the admission of supporting Hindutva did not come openly from all of them, the late MP from Gurdaspur was certainly an exception in speaking out his mind.
The BJP also knew of using the star power smartly. In the 1998 Lok Sabha election, Khanna succeeded in storming the Congress's fortress of Gurdaspur and defeating the late Sukhbans Kaur, the five-time MP from the seat who had been winning since 1980. The choice of making Khanna the nominee from the seat had not gone down well with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the BJP's ally in Punjab, in the beginning but that obstacle was gradually overcome, thanks to the hard work that Khanna and his wife Kavita had put in despite the label of "Bombaywala".
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The combination of Khanna's Jat identity coupled with his star power and cool cashing in on Bhinder's anti-incumbency challenge ultimately delivered. The actor-politician defeated the sitting MP by over one lakh votes.
Khanna, thereafter, remained the BJP's strongman in Gurdaspur. He won the 1999 general elections too and completed a hat-trick in the 2004 elections even if the BJP lost power at the Centre. In 2009, however, Khanna lost to former Congress minister in Punjab Pratap Singh Bajwa by just over 8,000 votes. The BJP went ahead with his candidature in the 2014 election as well despite the fact that things had changed in the saffron party and it had entered the Modi era from the AB Vajpayee-LK Advani era. Khanna did not disappoint his party and avenged the 2009 loss by defeating the same Bajwa by over 1.3 lakh votes. Party patriarch LK Advani had backed Khanna as the candidate ahead of the election.
Khanna was one of the BJP's prominent faces in Punjab's Majha region, which has the second-most number (25) of Assembly seats in the state. The BJP-SAD combine lost badly in this year's Punjab elections which suggest that even Khanna couldn't help the NDA beat the anti-incumbency challenge but the man was sick and far from electorally competent. With his passing away, the BJP will have to find an equally appealing face in Punjab to re-run the script as it was since 1998.
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One of Khanna's political legacy would be his effort towards improving the relation between India and Pakistan through films. As the Minister of State for External Affairs, Vinod Khanna also agreed to the then idea of bus diplomacy which was presented by former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. He had also led a delegation during talks with the Palestinian leadership on cooperation at the United Nations, especially on the issue of terrorism. Another significance of Khanna was that despite the change of guard in the BJP, he did not allow it to affect himself. Unlike another actor-politician Shatrughan Sinha who is also an MP from Bihar or the old guard, Khanna had never chosen to speak against the new leadership in the BJP despite having served under the Vajpayee government in the past. He had said Modi had a striking similarity with Vajpayee in handling things.
Khanna, who certainly beat Bachchan as far as making a career in politics is concerned, though had charges of not attending the parliament regularly or remaining absent from his constituency even after the terror attacks in Pathankot in January 2016, but yet one cannot deny that the man was one of the few who made a mark in politics despite coming from the film industry.
Vinod Khanna will be missed by the BJP.