PHILLUM stars don't live in Gurdaspur, do they? So, when a popular tinsel town denizen wings away from Mum-bai's make-up rooms, descends on a back-of-beyond Lok Sabha constituency and turns a sprawling bungalow in Pathankot into his residence-cum-office to wage electoral war, incredulity is inevitable. As the ageing Bollywood hunk, Vinod Khanna, BJP's candidate in Gurdaspur, appeals for votes in chaste Punjabi, he does so with all the fervour that a seasoned actor can muster. Yet, his pronouncements are greeted with dollops of scepticism. In Dinanagar, an assembly segment of the constituency, a bearded man walks up to the broad-shouldered star, gives his hand a vigorous shake and asks: "Tusi rahoge itthe? (Will you live here?)" The nattily-attired Khanna replies with a cultivated air of certitude: "Zaroor ji, zaroor."
The question is hurled at Khanna everywhere. To allay the persistent doubts, his campaign managers miss no opportunity to let it be known that Khanna is already talking to prospective dealers for a house in Gurdaspur. Really? Is he so confident of victory? "He has every reason to be confident," says Punjab's forest minister Master Mohan Lal, who was the BJP's first choice for the Gurdaspur seat."All nine assembly segments here are with the BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal combine." There is no way Khanna can lose, he asserts.
The 52-year-old film star has a portmanteau campaign team: wife Kavita, brother Pramod Khanna, stuntman-turned-actor Gurbachan Singh, who began life as a wrestler in Gurdaspur in the '70s, actress Maya Alagh, who happens to be the Khannas' neighbour in Mumbai, Delhi stockbroker Ravi Kapoor and businessmen-friends Ram Gandhi, Shekhar Mehta and Suketu Shah, son of former BJP Rajya Sabha member, Viren J. Shah. Khanna may have left his prime way behind him, but he still is quite a crowd-puller. He is mobbed wherever his motorcade stops; autograph books are thrust at him; everybody, young and old alike, wants to touch him. As the Khanna caravan crisscrosses the district, cries of "Khanna saab di balle balle" rend the air at every street corner.
Enthused, the suave Peshawar-born actor pledges every ounce of his khoon pasina to the cause of Gurdaspur and harps on the 'mera gaon mera desh' theme: "I'm here because I want to serve the people. My roots are in Punjab. I live in Mumbai but my heart is here." Invoking the names of A.B. Vajpayee and Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, he promises to tackle local problems: build dykes to prevent flooding by the Ravi, construct a bridge across the Beas that will cut down the approach to the district by at least 60 km, erect fly-overs so that the exasperatingly large number of level crossings is drastically reduced, open colleges for women. "Some of these," says the star, "are state subjects, but a concerned MP can make a difference, especially if he belongs to the ruling coalition."
Khanna's is a roadshow of the kind Gurdaspur has never seen before. People in the district are lapping it all up. "Welcome to Dayavan," reads a banner in Pathankot.The welcome has gone well beyond mere words. But will the euphoria translate into votes? Khanna is sure he won't flunk this imtihaan: "People here don't see me merely as a filmstar. I'm a serious candidate." Explains Kavita: "The initial response could well be because he's a star. But when he speaks, people realise he means business, that he is aware of the constituency's problems."
Don't they all say that? But who cares? Certainly not the political parties that have once again unleashed a phalanx of pin-ups either as candidates or as campaigners to offset the absence of charismatic leaders in their own ranks. The high-profile glamour brigade, in turn, has lent a degree of colour and flair to an otherwise rather lacklustre campaign. In the biggest electoral show on earth, numbers matter. So anything that helps attract crowds is pursued with intent. Hence the Tamil film industry's top draw, Sharath Kumar, who was with the AIADMK until the infamous wedding of Jayalalitha's foster-son, is the DMK's candidate in Tirunelveli. His nomination has more to do with his caste affiliation—he is a Nadar, a community that constitutes 40 per cent of Tirunelveli—than with his popularity as a film star. Moreover, his stocks are high at this point because he is spearheading a campaign to retrieve the Tamil Nad Mercantile Bank's shares, originally owned by Nadars, from the Ruias of the Essar group. The DMK leadership feels that Sharath's bank retrieval campaign makes him a sureshot winner.
But the swashbuckling star of such smash hits as Nattamai and Suryavamsham, which is now being remade in Hindi with Amitabh Bachchan, is not relying on his undeniable charisma alone. He's roped in sexy sirens like Naghma and Khushboo to canvass for him. The pretty ladies, who understand neither the caste angle of Sharath's candidature nor the nuances of Dravidian politics, are banking solely on their 'face value'. As Sharath's convoy hops from village to village, the buxom twosome in tow, hit numbers from their films are played to jazz up the show. Lip-service is paid to the need to continue liberalisation and to keep fundamentalist forces at bay, but these are issues that neither Sharath nor his two star supporters have any real clue about.
AN array of other major movie stars are in the poll fray in the south. Kannada cinema's reigning 'rebel' star Ambarish, famous for his anti-establishment roles, has been fielded by the Janata Dal in politically volatile Mandya. Telugu star Krishnam Raju, who failed miserably in his last attempt to win a Lok Sabha seat (Narsapur, 1991), is the BJP's candidate in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh. And last but not the least, Rajnikanth, undoubtedly south India's biggest film personality, is back in the thick of the action, running a campaign for the DMK-TMC combine on television.
Rajnikanth has more than 10,000 fan clubs and their total membership tops the 200,000 mark. While all the other stars travel all over the state to canvass for the party they support, Rajnikanth talks to the video camera and his footage is aired through various private TV channels. In the 1996 elections, he spoke for precisely eight minutes and his cadres took up the task of defeating Jayalalitha. This time, too, following a statement from him, his fans are flocking to rallies addressed by DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi and TMC chief G.K. Moopanar. In meeting after meeting, an irritated Jayalalitha has been attacking Rajnikanth. And every attack only increases Rajni's support base.
While the macho men of southern filmdom seem to be doing fine in the electoral arena, the actresses have run into rough weather. Jayanthi, a veteran of over 300 films, represents R.K. Hegde's Lok Shakti in the state's Chickballapur constituency. A political greenhorn, she's caught between two titans—former Union minister R.L. Jalappa, contesting on the Congress ticket, and Karnataka agriculture minister C. Byre Gowda, the JD nominee. Another veteran actress T. Sarada, three-time Urvashi award-winner and outgoing MP, is the Telugu Desam's candidate once again in hometown Tenali. Up against Congress heavyweight P. Shiv Shankar, she appears to be fighting a losing battle.While her own public meetings are sparsely attended, Sonia Gandhi's recent rally in nearby Guntur drew voters from Tenali in hordes. Rajya Sabha member Jayaprada is the TDP's star campaigner in Andhra Pradesh, while the BJP has pressed Vijayashanti and Gowthami into service. But neither of these winsome ladies has made much of an impression.
Jayaprada has set a blistering pace in Andhra Pradesh to counter the impact of the Sonia onslaught. But to no avail. The actress, who was once described by Satyajit Ray as India's most beautiful woman, has been finding it increasingly difficult to attract crowds. At one of her campaign meetings, she implores the modest gathering to vote for the United Front. There is a clear sense of resignation in her voice: "Vote for Telugu pride. Vote for the TDP. Don't let this opportunity slip by or you may have to repent."
VIJAYASHANTI who, as cinema's female supercop, tried to Ram-bo-ise Indian womanhood, is a pale shadow of her on-screen persona. She can only wave at the crowds and spout feebly:"Vote for the BJP because only Vajpayee can give you a stable government." But she isn't aware that Vajpayee has been in Parliament since 1957 or that he served as external affairs minister in Morarji Desai's cabinet. Ask her about Article 370. The response is a blank stare. All questions elicit the same answer: "Only Vajpayee can give India an able and stable government." How do you defend the jumbo ministry in UP? How do you defend the BJP's alliance with the corrupt AIADMK? Are there any differences between Vajpayee and Advani? Sure enough, not once does Vijayashanti deviate from the one-line script. Pushed further to explain her politics, she says: "The choice was between Rome rajya and Ram rajya. I chose the latter.
" Gowthami is doing no better. She meanders through generalities. She talks about people's power and the power of the 'lotus'. But her speech has no modulation. It's flat and her voice sounds impersonal (in films, Gowthami never used her own voice). At her most dramatic, she holds a plucked lotus in her hand and asks people to vote for the BJP. Yawn!
In the north, too, there is a fair sprinkling of stars on the campaign trail. Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (SP) has nominated character actor Yunus Parvaiz in east Delhi. In Lucknow, filmmaker Muzaffar Ali, Mulayam's nominee and the most prominent flag-bearer of Awadh's syncretic tehzeeb, is taking on the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Vajpayee. And the BJP has roped in wrestling icon-turned-actor Dara Singh to campaign for such high-profile candidates as Sushma Swaraj and Madanlal Khurana. "Vote for the BJP," Singh exhorts a gathering in Swaraj's constituency, "for it's the only party that can give you a stable government." Did you actually expect political profundities from a wrestler who went on to become Indian cinema's Tarzan in a series of B-grade stunt flicks?
The grime and grind of electioneering may have given way to the glitz and glamour of starry appeals in many a constituency, but many of the stars in the poll fray insist that they know exactly what they are trying to achieve. Hear Ambarish: "I apply make-up only on my face, not my heart." Or Vinod Khanna: "Acting is now only a small part of my life. I'm in politics for good." And the portly Yunus Parvaiz: "I'm contesting the polls because I want to contribute my mite to the battle against a corrupt and communal BJP." Clearly, for many, this is anything but make-believe.The battle is for real and it's tough. "It's much easier speaking those lines before the camera. Someone else writes them for me," says Parvaiz. "Here I've to speak straight from the heart."
That is precisely what Ambarish, campaigning with actress-wife Sumalatha, is seeking to do. "You've nurtured me for 25 years," he says with a flourish after opening a touring tent cinema in Mandya. "You've given me a bungalow and cars and fattened me on chicken and ragi. Now give me the opportunity to repay you." The crowd roars in approval. One fan cuts his finger with a blade and uses the blood to apply a tilak on the star's forehead. It's not for nothing thatthey call Ambarish Mandyada gandu (Mandya's macho man).
Ambarish's battle is against one-time political mentor, G. Made Gowda of the Congress. G.M. Gowda inducted the popular Kannada actor into the party in the presence of the then prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, before the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. This after the star had contested the assembly bypoll in Ramanagara against the Congress and lost. But for the 1996 polls, Ambarish was denied the Congress ticket and the actor crossed over to the JD. Gowda has been an MLA four times and an MP twice and toppling him will take some doing. But Ambarish exudes confidence: "I lost in Ramanagara because I was branded an outsider. Here I am a local hero. I should win." But will Mandya rebel against Gowda?
In Gurdaspur, however, the scenario is a lot clearer. The Congress candidate, Sukhbans Kaur Bhinder, who's won the seat five times in a row since 1980, is on a rather sticky wicket this time around. She's a local neta all right, but the arrival of the popular abhineta from Mumbai has upset her calculations. Khanna is targeting her inability to bring real development to Gurdaspur. "What has that aurat done for you all these years? Give me a chance and see the difference," thunders the actor. Gurdaspur's electorate—47 per cent Hindu, 43 per cent Sikh and eight per cent Christian—does not appear to be averse to sending a filmstar to Parliament.
In the 1996 Assembly elections, the BJP-SAD combine had wrested all the nine segments of Gurdaspur. Says Master Mohan Lal: "On all five occasions that Bhinder won, she had the government machinery working for her. This time she doesn't." To make matters worse, a Congress faction, led by the former PCC chief Santokh Singh Randhawa, is queering the pitch for the lady.
WHILE Khanna is expected to romp home, Muzaffar Ali and Yunus Parvaiz cannot be so sure. Ali's support base has grown since the campaign began. Attendance at his public meetings is increasing and his low-key campaigning style seems to be going down well. But dislodging Vajpayee will be well-nigh impossible. The maker of films like Gaman and Umrao Jaan hasn't let that dampen his enthusiasm for the task at hand. Ali sets out from Kotwara House, his home and poll office, early every morning and the motorcade wends its way through Lucknow's crowded streets in search of support. He promises to ensure that the benefits of development reach the poorest of the poor. "Lucknow, the jewel of Awadh, is in ruins," he laments. "There's filth everywhere. Pollution, the crime rate, the sense of insecurity—they are all spiralling out of control."
Similar problems confront east Delhi, and the SP's candidate here, Parvaiz, best known for his roles in Deewar, Garam Hawa and Bazaar, vows to tackle them on a war footing.Parvaiz, who formally joined the party in April 1996, is no stranger to electoral politics, having actively campaigned for Sunil Dutt in Mumbai during the 1984, 1989 and 1991 elections and for the SP in UP in 1996. "This time, too, I was preparing to campaign in Maharashtra and UP when Mulayamji asked me to contest from east Delhi," says the veteran of 200 films who, as a student of Allahabad University, was an active member of the leftist Students' Federation of India.
Parvaiz is pitted against Sheila Dikshit (Congress) and Lal Behari Tiwari (BJP), both Brahmins in a constituency where more than half the 23 lakh voters are either Muslims or backwards. Parvaiz, understandably, is concentrating on the depressed sections of the electorate. Perched atop a jeep that drives him through the filth and squalor of a jhuggi-jhopri cluster in Jahangirpuri, Parvaiz, in spotless white kurta-pyjamas, an electric-blue Nehru jacket and a pair of Raybans, stops and spells out his vision. "Your MP and MLA get Rs 1 crore each every year for the constituency. Where does the money go? Why do you continue to live in these sub-human conditions? Vote for SP. We will bring zindagi back into these houses."
Take that, and all the other promises that are being generously bandied about amid the heat and dust of electioneering, with a spadeful of salt if you will. But there can be no denying that the flamboyant, fast-talking stars have spiced up the electoral tamasha. If only at a strictly superficial level. Their pledges, much like their films, are being purveyed in the form of larger-than-life, technicolour dreams. One only hopes they are not as transient.
with A.S. Panneerselvan in Chennai, Y.P. Rajesh in Bangalore, M.S. Shanker in Hyderabad and Juhie Singh in Lucknow