Bengal Votes: Celeb culture key aspect of Mamata Banerjee's politics, WB CM tactfully uses it to draw voters and cull infighting
When Anik Dutta’s political satire Bhobishyoter Bhoot was yanked from theatres recently, none of the celebrity MPs and MLAs in Bengal came out in open support of their embattled colleague
Election campaigns, despite the best efforts of campaign managers tend to be unpredictable. When celebrities become political candidates, all bets are off.
Since Trinamool came to power in Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has raided the Tollywood film industry to find MPs and MLAs.
But voters are savvier now. Just because they come to click selfies with stars does not mean they will click on the party’s button in the EVM
Editor's note: This is a multi-part series of reports from West Bengal's smaller towns and cities. It examines how young urban voters view elections 2019, and what they expect from the political process. Read more articles from the series here
When I walk into Moon Moon Sen’s hotel on the outskirts of Asansol the first thing I notice is a baby langur in a little red jacket, like a little drummer boy.
Former finance minister Yashwant Sinha is holding a press conference inside the hotel but everyone seems more interested in selfies with the monkey. However the monkey turned into an unanticipated problem for Sen’s election campaign in Asansol. She had cuddled it onstage at a rally much to the delight of shutterbugs. The BJP complained this was against the Wildlife Protection Act and accused her of trying to court Hanuman-loving Hindu votes.
Sen, dressed in her best red-bordered white sari Bengali bouma avatar, is nonplussed. "Don’t you like animals?" she asks wide-eyed. "He was born on the day of Ram Navami just outside a temple. He's motherless. And he's so small! How can anyone be nasty about it?" Then she launches into a story about a baby monkey her mother, the legendary Suchitra Sen once adopted. Jhumroo was delightful but he just refused to wear trousers or shorts. "So mummy gave him away to her make-up man," sighs Sen. "He’d go to football matches with him and beat his head when everyone else clapped. I don’t think he understood much about football though."
Election campaigns, despite the best efforts of campaign managers tend to be unpredictable. When celebrities become political candidates, all bets are off. Since Trinamool came to power in Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has raided the Tollywood film industry to find MPs and MLAs.
Indiaspend recently analysed the performance of 19 celebrity MPs in the outgoing Lok Sabha. Eight of them are from West Bengal. This does not include MLAs like actors Debasree Roy and Chiranjeet in the Bengal Assembly. When Mamata Banerjee first announced her roster of celebs in the 2014 elections Bengali bhadralok rolled their eyes.
Moon Moon Sen being pitted against nine-time MP Basudeb Acharia in Bankura? What did young action hero Dev know about politics? Why drag Sandhya Roy, best known for weepy mother roles, out of retirement? Mamata had the last laugh. All of them romped home. Now each election comes with fevered speculation about which Page 3 celebrity would take the plunge or walk the plank depending on your perspective.
"Trinamool's approach to society is extremely populist," says Ranabir Samaddar, director of the Calcutta Research Group. Samaddar points out that the Left had also fielded actors but only ones who believed in their cause. Film stars who enter politics in Tamil Nadu and Andhra tend to be ambitious about their political careers. Much of Trinamool’s celebrity brigade is different. "Trinamool treats these celebrities as guest politicians," says Samaddar. "You don’t have to come to politics permanently. You are a good actor, a good sportsman. Keep on doing that. This is like a recognition of your work."
While many were aghast by what they saw as star-struck populism, Samaddar finds it fascinating that "she gives a chance to all sections of society to represent Bengal. You don’t have to be Trinamool per se." He just wishes she would cast a wider net – why not more scientists, academics, doctors, sportspersons if they were willing. "I think she needs to choose a little more carefully," he says.
In 2019 almost all her sitting celebrities were re-nominated. At a rally in Jadavpur in Kolkata, Mamata praised her star brood. "I am so honoured," she said. "They have shown they understand politics well." This time Didi has brought in two hot young stars – Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan. That means politics is not just a second innings for yesteryear stars yearning for their close-up once more. Nusrat Jahan says when Mamata told her she would have "to work more for us" she assumed she would have to campaign for Trinamool candidates. When her name was announced, she says "it was a surprise and it was a big one." If she had qualms, she’s not revealing them but the call of Didi is hard to rebuff.
Jahan deftly parries questions about how she will balance her career and her politics.
"Maybe I will just have to sleep two hours less," she says.
In 2014, the BJP too fielded a slew of celebrities– actor George Baker, composer Bappi Lahiri, magician PC Sorcar Jr. All of them lost. This time one of the few Tollywood stars in the fray for BJP is Locket Chatterjee. "But Locket-di has moved away from acting in the last few years," says Swarnendu Dey Sarkar, himself a theater actor at a rally for Chatterjee in Chinsurah. "We don’t see her as a celebrity. We see her as a fighter leader."
Chatterjee herself downplays her acting past. "People will not vote looking at movie stars," she tells the crowd. "Vote for me. That vote will go into Narendra Modiji’s account."
Dey Sarkar is dismissive of Trinamool’s star brigade. "Trinamool cannot attract people anymore. So it has to fall back on actors and actresses," he says.
Moon Moon Sen says stardom does work on the campaign trail. "It’s akin to being godlike you know in a way," says Sen. "You bring a little excitement into the people’s lives. I don’t enjoy campaigning. But I do it as my duty and I do it very well." However in Asansol, Sen’s posters have her own image overshadowed by photographs of her late mother, the iconic Suchitra Sen. Some posters have 5 ghostly Suchitras to 1 Moon Moon. Sen says the pictures are there only because the campaign was launched during her mother’s birthday week. "A certain age group can’t get enough of her,” smiles Sen beatifically. "And that’s a blessing for her daughter."
Other age groups are not so sure. Moulina Chatterjee, a college student in Asansol wonders "Who is running? Moon Moon Sen or her mother? Is this supposed to be a sympathy vote?"
Younger stars like Nusrat Jahan don’t have to bank on nostalgia. She makes statements about love and peace like a poised Miss World contestant. She sings old folk songs with a Maa-Maati-Manush twist to them on stage. She accepts hand-written poems from starstruck little girls. And she waves. At a rally for Jahan, Didi extols their commonality. "She has two eyes. I have two eyes. She has two ears. I have two ears. She has one liver. I have one liver. Only she is beautiful. I am not."
But voters are savvier now. Just because they come to click selfies with stars does not mean they will click on the party’s button in the EVM. The Indiaspend study shows celebrity MPs clock lower attendance in Parliament, ask fewer questions and participate in fewer debates. Dev’s parliamentary attendance is 11 percent. Sen is better at 69 percent but still below the Lok Sabha average of 80 percent. It's not just a Bengal issue. Shatrughan Sinha, despite being so vocal took part in no debates and asked no questions. Sen took part in one.
But one thing celebrities do successfully is use their 5 crore MP funds - 87.6 percent usage compared to the national average of 82.9 percent. Dev used up 96.7 percent of his funds. That suits the parties just fine. The actors bring in the bacon. The local leaders usually get to control where and how it’s spent.
There’s one other advantage says Maidul Islam, assistant professor at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences. "Wherever there is TMC infighting, Mamata brings in an outsider candidate. That’s where a celebrity helps," he says. "Also young stars might help bring in youth votes because young voters are otherwise very depoliticized."
But a political novice with a sense of entitlement can be a dangerous combo in the hurly burly of a campaign trail. Sen made national news when she airily professed ignorance about election violence because her bed tea was late. Mimi Chakraborty drew flak when she shook hands with a fan while wearing gloves. She said her hand was raw from sunburn but she made sure never to appear gloved again. Nusrat Jahan says her biggest asset on the campaign trail is she is Nusrat Jahan. Her biggest challenge? "That I am Nusrat Jahan," she says promptly. "Even a small mistake becomes a big issue. I mixed up my Bengali numbers and it became a big deal."
But while stars might have proven good for Didi’s politics, has it been good for their own field, a field predicated on freedom of expression? Jahan and Chakravarty faced mocking misogynistic memes when their candidacies were announced. When asked how as an artist she deals with the freedom of expression rights of the BJP activist arrested for sharing a meme mocking Mamata, Jahan retorts "How is it tricky for me? We all have been suffering this as an actor from the very beginning. Someone has to take a stand. So the law is doing it and taking its own course."
When Anik Dutta’s political satire Bhobishyoter Bhoot was yanked from theatres recently, none of the celebrity MPs and MLAs came out in open support of their embattled colleague. "The film industry is so close to this government and the government is so close to this industry," says Dutta. "There was obviously a quid pro quo." Sen says she doesn’t believe Mamata was behind the unofficial ban. "She’s far too busy. But don’t forget the sycophancy involved among the politicians themselves," she says.
But now she too is a politician. "I don’t call myself a politician. I am just not in that game," she says. Many fans agree. Palash Patra, a 26-year-old farmer waiting for Amit Shah at a rally in Chinsurah says he has no love for Mamata and Trinamool. But that does not meant the Trinamool stars have fallen from grace in his eyes.
"Yes if Mimi does a film of course I will go to see it. Politics is politics and cinema is cinema."
"My fans will remain my fans," says Jahan. "I am not worried."
As for that monkey, there’s no reason to worry either. Sen says "It’s very well looked after."
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