The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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After rehearsal, stage fright
- Cash-for-star-campaigner slur makes BJP think twice
Lights, camera... no action'
(From top) Smriti, Sudha, Poonam and Yukta

New Delhi/Mumbai, March 11: What’s wrong if stars charge appearance fee for taking the campaign stage, says Mumbai, which accepts there is a price for everything.

But in Delhi, which is ready to pay a price for anything but only underhand, the BJP has developed cold feet after staging daily celebrity parades at the party office.

“We are in favour of a serious election campaign. We do not believe in a sponsored commercial campaign. We are the only party having such a large number of political star campaigners like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, M. Venkaiah Naidu, Murli Manohar Joshi, Narendra Modi.... It is these star campaigners who will be leading the offensive and not film or TV stars,” asserted party spokesman Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

So, move over Yukta Mookhey.

The backdrop to the BJP unease is the allegation that celebrities are being paid large sums of money for campaigning. A Mumbai newspaper had said in a report that Smriti Malhotra-Irani, the bahu in the popular TV serial Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, had been paid Rs 1 crore to join the BJP.

She has denied the report and said Maharashtra BJP leader Gopinath Munde would pursue the issue.

If there is a hint of a defamation suit in the statement, it is believed that the party’s central leaders have advised patience.

Irani said she had joined the party out of commitment to its ideals. “I am an office-bearer who joined the BJP a year ago, before the Assembly polls when the party’s prospects were said to be low. I am not just a campaigner.”

While she has sold herself to “ideals”, other actors — she acknowledged — are not beyond selling themselves for money and there is nothing — she admits — wrong in that. “To them it’s a performance, for me it’s not,” she said.

There’s little doubt that stars are going for a price and Mumbai celebritydom accepts it as common practice, but no one will own up to taking money themselves. Mumbai is less coy about money than Delhi, but there’s a limit to its candidness, too.

Shweta Kwatra, another famous bahu who features in the serials Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kkusum, said: “I was approached to campaign and offered money, but I can’t name the party or the amount.” She was quoted earlier in an afternoon paper as having been offered Rs 1 lakh per day to campaign.

Poonam Dhillon, also with the BJP, is getting Rs 10 lakh per day and Mookhey Rs 1.5 lakh, according to the report. Dhillon could not be contacted and Mookhey is not in the country, her father said.

“There’s nothing wrong with canvassing for money,” said Kavita Kapoor, who features in the serial Kitty Party, in which Dhillon also acts. “The parties are using the actors’ faces. They are taking time off their busy schedules that they will have to compensate for later with hard work. Why shouldn’t they charge for it'”

Each celebrity was flaunted as the big acquisition of the poll season as angler and catch spoke well-rehearsed lines and the new entrant paid up the token money to proclaim they had become members of the BJP. From Hema Malini and Irani to Suresh Oberoi and Manoj Kumar, the same scene was replayed daily at the BJP’s 11, Ashoka Road headquarters for the past month.

The Congress came to the party later, parading Zeenat Aman, Celina Jaitley and Namrata Shirodkar.

If that was the trailer, the real show will be a curtailed one, it seems, for at least the BJP.

Naqvi said only four stars will campaign: Shatrughan Sinha, Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini and Dara Singh. Of them, the first two were smart enough to switch from film to politics once their hairline started receding and the waistline started expanding — Sinha and Khanna are central ministers now.

Hema and Dara proved their “credentials” as “serious” campaigners in the last Assembly elections, the party feels.

The others will possibly be only extras.

The Congress is unwilling to go on record about what it plans to do with its cast of stars — ex and current. In private, sources admitted that barring a few like Sunil Dutt — who represents the Mumbai (northwest) Lok Sabha constituency — to others ideology was “irrelevant”.

They also said each celebrity campaigner would expect anything from Rs 3 to 5 lakh per appearance.

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