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Indian Celebrities Take Part in Political Campaigns - 2004-04-03

India's two main political parties have been scrambling to recruit film stars and other celebrities in advance of parliamentary elections later this month. Celebrities are seen as a way of boosting the parties' political chances.

India's best-known comic hero, popularly known as Govinda, is usually seen singing, dancing and raising laughs across the big screen.

But these days, Govinda is appearing in a less glamorous setting. He is hopping on and off crowded suburban trains in Bombay to gather support for Congress, the main opposition party, which is running him against a powerful federal minister.

Govinda is not the only celebrity putting in an appearance in India's general elections, for which voting will be held over four days beginning April 20.

In a blaze of media attention, dozens of film and TV stars and former beauty queens have joined the country's two main political parties in recent weeks.

Exchanging their usual glamorous outfits for more traditional attire, they have rubbed shoulders with the country's top politicians, vowing to work for the party of their choice - in most cases the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or its rival, the Congress Party.

Most of the celebrities, such as Yukhta Mookhey, a former Miss World, are not running for office themselves. They are campaigning on behalf of the parties.

Ms. Mookhey says she has chosen to work for the BJP because it has boosted development in the country. She says by extending support to the party, she will be able to help the country continue on this path.

BJP spokesman Siddharth Nath is convinced that the actors and models will help his party attract crowds and pull in votes.

"When they go to the public, it's a known face, and Bollywood has a great fan following," he said. "So there is a section [of people], when they listen through the film stars, they get more attracted to the political system of the country and the party also."

Indians are passionate about films from Bollywood - as Bombay's version of Hollywood is known - and celebrities have participated in earlier elections. Some have even won.

In southern India, former film stars ruled the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu for many years. Two former Bollywood heroes won posts as federal ministers on the BJP ticket in 1996.

However, past campaigns have involved only a tiny sprinkling of movie stars. This time, the celebrity line-up for both the main parties is huge.

It includes a mix of retired film stars, popular TV soap opera heroines, and even a well-known cricket commentator. The BJP set the pace, recruiting more than a dozen celebrities to campaign for it. The Congress Party quickly caught up, displaying its own formidable cast of stars.

The move has amused some, but also invited criticism that the campaign has been turned into a spectacle. Many political commentators say more film stars are being put on the campaign trail this time to pep up an election devoid of excitement or serious debate. They say the glamorous line-up also helps political parties deflect attention from problems such as unemployment, and lack of water and electricity.

Hiranmay Karlekar, editor with the Pioneer newspaper, says political parties are in a race to win endorsements from the celluloid world because they do not have a serious message to deliver.

"When politics is unable to sustain its own appeal, and politicians are unable to attract support on their own, it indicates a certain bankruptcy of the political process and principal players in it," said Hiranmay Karlekar. Congress Party spokesman Kapil Sibal disagrees with this point of view. He says it is legitimate for political parties to harness the enormous appeal of Bollywood stars. But he says the effort should be serious.

"Bollywood is not something that is outside India. It is very much part of our psyche," he said. "I believe only serious-minded people should be brought within the fold of the party. If all that it means is having a film star with you and then forgetting him as soon as the election is over, I don't think that kind of thing should be encouraged."

However, chances are that most of these stars will not have a permanent impact on the political scene, and will be quietly shelved by the parties, once they have read out the right script on the campaign trail.