Sibram Chakraborty, the great Bengali humorist, had an instructive story to tell about the influence of film stars on lesser humans. A certain insignificant and docile orderly of the Calcutta Corporation was once found by his immediate boss to be sporting a rather ostentatious moustache. The boss, annoyed at his subordinate’s pompous appearance, ordered him to get rid of his moustache immediately. His annoyance grew further when he saw the next day that the man had come to work without carrying out his order. He reported the matter to his higher authority, recommending sternest possible disciplinary action. The higher authority, in turn, threatened the orderly with dreadful consequences if the latter chose to continue wearing his moustache. But the man showed no intention of yielding to pressure. So, in the course of the next few months, the matter went through a series of referrals from one higher authority to the next, and for the worker it almost became a choice between his job and his moustache. It was a long and bloody battle. But by sticking to his uncompromising stance and to his beloved moustache, the man came out victorious in the end. The highest authority, when the matter reached him, decided that there was nothing in the service conditions which could compel a worker to get rid of his moustache, however obnoxious it may be.
But the real surprise was yet to come. The very next day following the final verdict, the whole office was astounded to see the glorious fighter coming to work with his face cleanly shaven, without any trace of a moustache! The mystery was unveiled after a lot of probing. A certain film star, who had taken a fancy to sporting an unorthodox moustache for the last few months, had suddenly got rid of it.
It is likely that most of our political leaders have not read the story. But all of them have certainly been aware and convinced of its central message — that film personalities have a natural and invincible way with the masses. How else can we explain the participation of so many celluloid celebrities in the present elections' In fact, not merely film celebrities but famous personalities from sports, music or other walks of life are also being deployed in politics. For brevity, we shall simply refer to them as stars.
There may be several reasons why a star might want to go into politics. It would give him publicity, power and possibly, special privileges regarding income and wealth taxes if his chosen side gets lucky in the polls. It could even fetch him money. Indeed, we are told by the media that some stars are charging hefty fees for their appearances in political rallies and meetings. In fact, those who are past their prime are entering active politics because they have unlimited leisure to do so. Those who are still climbing uphill or lying at the top cannot afford the time and so are restricting themselves to pre-election shows and gatherings.
The more intriguing question, however, is: what do political parties gain from the endorsement or active participation of the stars' Of course, one may argue at the very outset that anyone from any profession has the liberty to go into politics. So why pick on stars in particular' The answer is not hard to find. While everyone has the freedom to serve the nation through his political activities, empirically, the stars are observed to be doing a bit more than their fair share. So it must be the case that political parties find them especially useful. Two related questions need to be addressed. First, why are stars viewed as particularly useful in politics' Second, is it essentially a good or a bad thing for the society that stars are being increasingly used by political parties'
Before we try to find answers to these questions, we may recall that stars have been serving the cause of the market with a greater fervor than they are serving the cause of democracy. Be it a soap or a detergent, a mobile phone or a washing machine, a four- wheeler or a bike, a particular type of soft drink or a potent hard liquor, usually we find the familiar face of a star on the electronic or print media or simply on a hoarding in the street, urging us to use the product in question. Why do producers spend billions of rupees on such advertisements' Surely, these advertisements must be enhancing sales. They do so by working at three different levels.
First, there is the naïve and the sentimental consumer, like the man mentioned in Sibram Chakraborty’s story who would buy the product simply because it has been advertised by his favourite star. Children, including teenagers, who are important customers of certain products like soft drinks, munchies and chocolates, may largely fall under this category. Second, even for consumers who are not so naïve, an advertisement by a known face draws immediate attention and through repeated advertisements, the consumer becomes familiar with the product without ever using it. Third, advertisement or endorsement by a celebrity gives the product a kind of prestige, which in turn signals strength of the manufacturer. The reflective consumer may deduce that since the company has been investing so much money on stars, it must intend to stay in the market for a long time to get back its investment. Therefore, to survive in the market in the long run, it must be selling fairly good quality products.
Political parties find the stars useful in the same way as manufacturers of products find them handy. As in economics, stars have a great advertisement value in politics too. Apart from attracting fans directly to their parties, the stars draw immediate attention of the general public. They also signal a kind of strength and prestige of the party they are campaigning for. The important thing to note is that the strength of the product which a star is trying to sell, be it economic or political, may be rather illusory. If a company or a political party has sufficient money to start with, it can hire celebrities and signal its strength. In the process, it drives smaller competitors out of the race. These smaller competitors might jolly well have a better product to sell, but just because they do not have the initial money to invest in advertisement, they are unable to signal the quality of their product and are kicked out of the contest.
Therefore, the two great institutions — markets and democracy — which are considered to be the two main pillars of capitalism, seem to rely a lot, for their functioning, on advertisements. Large-scale engagement of stars is just a manifestation of this phenomenon. This has at least two adverse effects on society. First, with the incessant bombarding of advertisements, the actual economic and political choice of the public gets distorted. Though, apparently, there remains freedom of choice, in practice such freedom becomes an illusion. Second, and more important, smaller players, whether political parties or manufacturing units, who cannot afford to invest in propaganda and promotion of their products, do not stand a chance of survival. Competition, therefore, gets concentrated among the big few.
In other words, both freedom of choice and unimpeded competition, the two most desirable products of capitalism, become suspect. Of course, it all depends to a large extent on the level of awareness and education of the public. Surely in the West, we do not find as much prominence of stars in political and economic spheres as we see in India. Again, within the country, educated and socially-aware Kerala stands in stark contrast to neighbouring Tamil Nadu as far as attitudes towards stars are concerned.