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29 May, 2024 09:25

Screen Queen vs Royal Pedigree: Bollywood star runs a feisty election campaign high in the Himalayas

Silver screen idol Kangana Ranaut is taking part in India’s election in her hometown, charming voters and opponents alike
Screen Queen vs Royal Pedigree: Bollywood star runs a feisty election campaign high in the Himalayas

In India, more than anywhere else, film and politics feed off one another. Bollywood (as the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry is called) celebrities have participated in India's parliamentary elections. In 1957, the three reigning movie stars – Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, and Dev Anand, all born in what is now Pakistan, campaigned at the request of the nation's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. 

Amitabh Bachchan, a seventies box office colossus, ran for parliament in 1984 at the behest of Nehru’s grandson, former PM Rajiv Gandhi. Running against opposition heavyweight H. L. Bahuguna, Bachchan won by one of the biggest margins ever.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has, over the past decade, enlisted various family members of Bachchan's contemporary Dharmendra Deol to run for parliament: Deol himself, his second wife Hema Malini (who is currently seeking re-election in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh), and his son, Sunny Deol. Generally, movie stars do not contribute much to the legislature. However, when they campaign, they are a big draw among the mass of starstruck voters.

A dozen film celebrities are running for office in the current election; the most prominent is Kangana Ranaut, the BJP candidate in Mandi in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh. She has linked her prospects to incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid for a third term. Voting in Mandi is on June 1, the last day of elections.


Donning a traditional Himachali topi (cap) and a sari, Ranaut makes a fervent appeal to voters, mostly women, in the remote village of Jagatkhana in Kullu district, emphasizing her local origins at public rallies. You should vote for your own daughter from Mandi district, as only I can understand your pain and suffering and work to resolve your issues,” she says in Hindi.

Her humble background is her constant theme, given that her opponent, Congress candidate Vikramaditya Singh, is the scion of the royal family of the erstwhile princely state of Rampur Bushahr in Shimla district. His father was six-time Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who is fondly remembered as ‘Raja Sahab’ by supporters; he was anointed ‘King’ posthumously. 

“Shehzada!” Ranaut repeatedly shouts. While it means ‘prince’, it refers to a dynastic inheritor, and here it is a two-edged sword, not only against her princely local opponent, but also against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, son of Rajiv and the great-grandson of Nehru. (Incidentally, two of this anti-royal campaigner’s most famous films have royalist titles: Queen and Manikarnika: Queen of Jhansi”.)

Congress, on the other hand, is targeting the BJP for fielding a film star while ignoring the local party leadership. She will return to the movies after the elections are over, it insists.


The political script 

Few are surprised by Ranaut’s entry into politics. She is an outspoken critic of nepotism in Bollywood, which has for over three decades been dominated by the three Khans – Shahrukh, Salman and Aamir. They are all Muslim, even if some don’t flaunt their religion. Ranaut has occasionally taken them on, much to the delight of her majoritarian fans.

But the actual script for her political debut was written in 2020, when she targeted the then Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra government, led by chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, over the suicide death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. She had heated exchanges with Thackeray’s government; toeing the line of local BJP leaders, she alleged the state government to be complicit in the actor’s death after an allegedly ineffective investigation by the Mumbai Police.

State government spokesman Sanjay Raut and the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece ‘Saamana’ publicly targeted Ranaut over her ‘misplaced tweets and statements’. They claimed Ranaut’s home in Mumbai had been constructed illegally and it was partially demolished by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). 

The High Court of Bombay ruled that the demolition was unjust and an attempt to silence the actor, while also stating that she should have exercised restraint when issuing statements. The central government gave her a high level of personal security.


Even opponents want a photo

Ranaut’s campaign has mainly focused on the ‘Modi factor’ and how her party promotes leaders from humble origins, in contrast to the dynastic politics of Congress, its corruption, and the failure of the state Congress government led by Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu to fulfil promises made during the 2022 assembly election.

“Chief Minister Sukhu says that former BJP Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur had fielded a heroine from the Mandi parliament segment and that it will turn out to be a flop film,” she tells the gathered crowd. “Chief Minister Sukhu, you couldn’t run the government successfully for even 18 months, while Thakur completed a five-year tenure without hassle while working for the people’s welfare.”

To connect with the remote area where even Congress supporters gathered to get a glimpse and a photograph of her, Ranaut details her humble origin and mentions how she was brought up in her hometown.

She mentions Prime Minister Modi, ex-Chief Minister Thakur and local state legislator Lokinder Kumar’s humble origins – to prove the BJP’s ideology of promoting the common man in the party cadre, as opposed to the “elitist” Congress. “Congress has fielded Vikramaditya Singh whose father, Virbhadra Singh, was CM six times,” she says. “Virbhadra Singh and Vikramaditya’s mother Pratibha Singh represented the constituency eight times, which equals 40 years, more than my age.”

Ranaut is relentless. “Now they question my vision for the people and the Mandi parliament segment,” she says. “I want to ask if they had such a good vision and plans for the people of the constituency, then why didn’t they implement these earlier?” 


She talks the talk and walks the walk, say voters

Calling herself ‘Mandi ki beti’ (daughter of Mandi), Ranaut says “the people of Himachal Pradesh have decided to vote for her and for the BJP, for providing honest governance and furthering the interests of the common man during its ten years of rule.” 

To this, a woman in the gathering loudly proclaims she will support Ranaut. The Bollywood actress responds: “Tuhan morcha sambhalana didi.” (You should come and manage from the front.)

Seema Devi attended the public gathering and was convinced by Ranaut’s appeal. “I liked her speech and her resolve to work for the welfare of the people in the remote areas. I am confident she will make efforts to make people’s lives easier if she is elected.” 

Jagdish Seth, another local, said he found Ranaut’s election pitch convincing, and not in line with the other party’s claims that she was making absurd claims and statements.