The Congress party’s Sanjay Nirupam began his political campaign earlier than his rivals for the national elections. In August last year, on national television.
That was when he sat on the plush black leather sofa, Shilpa Shetty by his side in a red dress, and smiled and waved to the studio crowd.
Nirupam (44) had just become the first person to be evicted from Bigg Boss, the popular reality TV show that brought together a group of celebrities to live in the same house for three months.
“I went on Bigg Boss because housewives and youngsters do not relate with politicians,” Nirupam says candidly, surrounded by favours-seeking visitors at his office on a narrow street in the suburban Andheri (East) neighbourhood.
“I wanted to each out to them. It really worked,” he says.
India is mesmerised by reality shows, available to some 110 million television-watching households. It’s a captive audience — which includes 43 million new voters this election — so politicians want to be on them.
“Reality TV is a representation of India,” says Nirupam, as a young, laptop-armed assistant nods in agreement. Nirupam engages with his young voters the way they would like him to — on Facebook, and on his blog.
“Every night, I log in,” says Nirupam, who nevertheless offended some viewers with his advice to a female contestant to cover her body and not wear skimpy clothes. “They say, ‘The system is corrupt, we want military rule’. I tell them, the only option for democracy is better democracy.”
Four days before that evening appearance with Shilpa Shetty in August, a few streets away from where Nirupam sat, some 500 furious political activists had given an example of that desperation.
They were supporters of pro-Dalit leader Ramdas Athavale of the Republican Party of India, who had been denied a place on Bigg Boss.
The RPI members blocked Parsi Panchayat Road and barged into the building there that has the offices of Colors, the television channel that aired the show.
Then they smashed windows and broke furniture and fittings — without realising they were attacking the wrong office. They alleged Athavale had been invited to the show and then kept out — because he was a Dalit.
“I don’t support violence, but our people were very upset,” says Athavale. “I had thought I would give the show a social touch. I wanted to talk to the participants about social justice.”
Social justice is the campaign mantra of another top politician who has been reality show-hopping: Lalu Prasad Yadav. Last May, he regaled his audiences on Shah Rukh Khan’s show Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hain?
Yadav has sung on other shows as well, appeared with his wife, former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi, and that’s not all — after 27-year-old singer Poonam Yadav won a singing reality show, the minister gave her a job in the Indian Railways.
Sushma Swaraj has been down these air-conditioned passageways canvassing for women’s empowerment; Maneka Gandhi endorsed a pet lover contestant and Maharashtra politician Raj Thackeray, champion of Maratha chauvinism, openly backed contestant Vaishali Made on Zee TV’s Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, the eventual winner, as a symbol of modern Maharashtra — a underprivileged Dalit
girl who made it big.
In January, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee appeared on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa at a shoot in Kolkata and sang the popular patriotic song ‘Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon’.
But even as they seek votes from the youth, they do not agree with all that is going on in the world of the young.
“The youth are a blank slate,” says Nirupam, at the office on the Mumbai street. “But what’s being written on them is all bogus.”