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Kerala elections: Will politics help Sreesanth rise from the ashes?

india Updated: May 05, 2016 18:11 IST

On the campaign trail, Sreesanth is often faced with young fans seeking selfies with him.(Sreekesh Raveendran Nair)

Sreesanth thinks he may be suffering from sunburn. On April 29, the ex-cricketer stayed up till 1.30 am. At 5.30 am the next morning, he was dressed and ready to campaign for the BJP in the upcoming Kerala assembly polls. At 10 am, he was found at a fish market at Kannettumukku in the heart of state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

Wearing a white full-sleeved shirt with his party’s trademark saffron shawl draped on his shoulders, Sreesanth walked jauntily through the market with his supporters as young boys playing the chenda followed him at a distance. His friend, Shyam Nawas, told me that the record-breaking heat wave had taken a toll on the former cricketer – causing rashes to break out on his skin.

A little later, he headed to the next spot on the campaign trail – the Residency Tower hotel, where the NDA was releasing its vision document for the Kerala elections. “The love and respect you get from politics is much bigger than what you get from cricket,” the 33-year-old told me in the car. “I breathe politics now.”

Kerala’s first ever celebrity-packed election is here, finally. The BJP is fielding stars like former pace bowler Sreesanth, actor Bheeman Raghu and film director Rajasenan in the hope of ending its Kerala jinx. Some say that as celebs have traditionally spurned the Saffron party in the past, getting such high-profile candidates is something of a feat in itself.

The other parties in the fray have also jumped on the celebrity bandwagon. The Congress has fielded actor Jagadish, while the Left has decided to go with actor Mukesh and television news anchors Nikesh Kumar and Veena George.

Unlike neighbouring states like Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh, Kerala does not have a history of fielding or voting for celebrities. Ganesh Kumar is the only minister who came from the film industry, but he had the excuse of having a veteran politician for a father. On the campaign trail, Sreesanth is often faced with young fans seeking selfies with him. One such fan at the fish market joked that the cricketer would surely win if all those selfies turned into votes.

With his party’s trademark saffron shawl draped on his shoulders, Sreesanth interacts with the public in Karimadom colony in Kerala. (Sreekesh Raveendran Nair)
“The love and respect you get from politics is much bigger than what you get from cricket,” the 33-year-old former cricketer says. “I breathe politics now.” (Sreekesh Raveendran Nair)

Read: Like in cricket, I will be aggressive in politics too, says Sreesanth

There has been plenty of speculation whether Sreesanth, who was banned from professional cricket for life by the BCCI for his involvement in spot-fixing in the 2013 IPL tournament, is serious about politics. To the cynical, his pursuit of political power and new popularity (or as some would say, continued notoriety) as the BJP’s poster boy in Kerala is all aimed at getting the BCCI ban lifted. The cricket board has refused to give Sreesanth a reprieve despite a Delhi court dropping spot-fixing charges against him.

But the more adoring among the public would like to know how Sreesanth, known for his aggression and exuberance on the cricket field, will survive in a provocative political field. As a cricketer, he was warned – and even fined – several times for indiscipline and for violating player conduct guidelines. The man continues to stumble as a politician, but maybe it’s just his way of learning the game.

A few days ago, Sreesanth tried comparing the BJP state president to Sachin Tendulkar – eliciting a tweet from writer NS Madhavan that the people will turn into Harbhajan Singh if he talks this way. Spinner Harbhajan had treated the former cricketer to a resounding slap after an IPL match in 2008, making him cry.

On another occasion last month, Sreesanth tweeted: “The change is must in Kerala Nd Iam sure It will happen this time..we can be worlds best city if we all work together. [sic]”

When somebody pointed out that Kerala was not a city, he promptly went ahead and blocked him.

On April 19, Shashi Tharoor mocked Sreesanth on Twitter for not having any answers about his political rival in his constituency during an NDTV interview. Tharoor wrote, “Why @sreesanth36 needs to do his homework against the incoming bouncer: [Link] Should have stuck to his great outswingers!”

Sreesanth tweeted back an image of Chanakya, accompanied by a quote: “If pseudo-intellectuals are upset, then assume that the king is indeed (heading) in the right direction.”

Understandably, even Sreesanth’s fans wonder if he is ‘mature’ enough for politics. “I love his cricket, but not his character,” a young fan told me bluntly.

The night before I met him, one of Sreesanth’s local election committee offices was allegedly attacked by rival party workers. Sreesanth, however, said he will not resort to aggression. “Off-field, I’m a simple man,” he said. “The election is also an opportunity for me to go to the people and tell them that I’m a simple man and I don’t have any ego.”

“But on the field, I’ll break your head,” he hastened to add.

Sreesanth recently declared to the press: “Malayalis love me.” There, however, has been little evidence of this. Several Malayalam newspapers recently ran stories on how some voters seemed to have no idea who he was. Others seemed disapproving of his brand of impulsive, outré behavior. The cricketer’s on-field displays of temperament have invited the sharpest reactions in Kerala – be it the time when Harbhajan slapped him, his face-off dance against South African cricketer André Nel, or his arguing with judges on the dance reality show, Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa.

So it’s not incidental that now, in appearance after appearance, Sreesanth keeps using the loaded word ‘simple’. It’s a reaction to how Kerala wants its celebrities to behave in public life, and the way it takes deep pleasure in ridiculing its celebrities for their jaadaa (or pseudo-airs).

While Sreesanth’s fans wonder if he is ‘mature’ enough for politics, in appearance after appearance, he aims to project his image as a ‘simple man’. (Sreekesh Raveendran Nair)
On the campaign trail, Sreesanth is extremely polite – with no trace of his infamously aggressive appeals to umpires. (Sreekesh Raveendran Nair )

Read: Kerala polls: Sreesanth declares assets worth Rs 7.37 crore

It’s a common burden in Kerala’s public life. The less charitable believe Malayalis suffer from the Tall Poppy syndrome (a social phenomenon when the successful are resented and criticised for distinguishing themselves over their peers). For example, television anchor Renjini Haridas is often mocked for her English-accented Malayalam. Actor Prithviraj faced an army of trolls when his wife, Supriya, claimed in an interview that he was one of the rare South Indian actors capable of speaking fluent English.

On the campaign trail, Sreesanth is extremely polite – with no trace of his infamously aggressive appeals to umpires. To everyone he meets, he says mildly, “Chechi, sreesanthinu vote cheyyille? (Sister, won’t you vote for Sreesanth?) Chetta, tharamarayanu chihnam. (Brother, the lotus is the symbol.)”

At one instance, upon hearing a song from a house, he stopped and told the woman watching TV: “Chechi, ithende aliyan padiya pattaanu. (Sister, this song was sung by my brother-in-law [playback singer Madhu Balakrishnan]).”

Beyond personal eligibility, the other question trailing Sreesanth wherever he goes is: Why BJP?

BJP supporters often face severe criticism in Kerala, and Rajya Sabha member Suresh Gopi and film director Major Ravi are no exceptions. Even iconic actor Mohanlal faced many a hard question when he supposedly echoed the BJP line on nationalism debate on his blog. Kerala has never elected a BJP candidate to the state assembly, and party insiders say Sreesanth was roped in to secure wider acceptance – especially among the youth.

Sreesanth’s father is an avowed communist. His cousin Dr TN Seema is a CPI(M) leader contesting from a neighboring Thiruvananthapuram constituency. For his part, Sreesanth says he was attracted to the “magic” of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It certainly helps that his father-in-law, Hirendra Singh Shekhawat, a director in the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Board, is known to be close to the BJP’s central leadership – especially party chief Amit Shah. Shekhawat and his son, Fateh Singh, are camping in Thiruvananthapuram along with Sreesanth’s parents and family to help with his campaign.

In the afternoon, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley arrived for a BJP campaign meet at the Trivandrum Club, and shared the dais with Sreesanth. Jaitley pronounced the party’s great expectations in Kerala and how far they have come: From being a party with only two MPs to becoming the ruling party at the Centre with a majority. “Kerala will see the end of the bipolar politics led by LDF and UDF, and this election will be a tri-polar fight,” Jaitley said.

State BJP in-charge Rajiv Pratap Rudy cited the example of Haryana, where the party went on from being a minuscule minority in the state assembly to becoming its ruling party. The NDA’s vision document for Kerala promises 10 action plans, including a second land reform in the state, a housing scheme for the homeless and government jobs for adivasi youth.

The BJP succeeded in increasing its Kerala vote share in the last Lok Sabha elections.

Desperate to make the lotus bloom in the Kerala assembly, it has welcomed firebrand adivasi leader CK Janu and Ezhava community leader Vellappally Natesan into its fold. Kerala remains a vital testing ground for the party to bring various caste groups under its umbrella, while the Left and the Congress counter these efforts by claiming that the BJP continues to be an upper caste party.

Sreesanth, however, remained evasive about such socio-political equations. At one point, he told me: “The BJP is like cricket. It has no religion.”

The constituency where Sreesanth is contesting – Thiruvananthapuram central – is Kerala’s political nerve centre. Sreesanth’s main opponent is VS Sivakumar, the incumbent minister for health, family welfare and Devaswom. The minister told me that he feels voters always look for candidates who understand their problems. “My constituency is known for fishermen and other ordinary communities. I’ve been representing them for a long time.

They want somebody who will work for them,” he said.

A significant part of this constituency is the coastal area. As we entered Karimadom colony, a slum in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram, a group of men and women gathered around Sreesanth and complained about the delay in their rehabilitation. The government had demolished their houses three years ago and the new flats they were promised were still under construction. While some families have given up and left, others live in a single building that houses 50 families. There are only a couple of toilets in the whole building. “They [the politicians] must have looted the money,” Sreesanth told them.

Sreesanth says he wants to develop his constituency into a sports hub, but doesn’t elaborate. “The boys and girls in the coastal area have immense potential in sports and other things. I want to make them realise their potential,” he says.

In his speeches, he mostly talks of the central government’s good work. “Development will happen if the Centre and the state are ruled by the same party,” he repeats over and over again.

Shyam Nawas says that the one month Sreesanth spent in prison ended up changing his outlook of life.

The cricketer was sent to the infamous Tihar jail for his alleged involvement in the spot-fixing scam, after the Delhi police invoked the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act (MCOCA) against him. He obtained bail after spending about a month in jail. His brother-in-law claimed that the cricketer survived a murder attempt in jail, when a fellow-inmate attacked him with a sharpened door bolt.

Sreesanth seemed worn out when asked about his experiences in jail. “I’m not very comfortable talking about it,” he said.

When I pointed out that many great political leaders faced jail terms that only served to make them tougher, he seemed to get his incensed look of old. “I’m sorry, this is a wrong thing to say,” he replied. “You shouldn’t have said this to me. They were in jail for a reason.

I was put in jail for nothing. I was treated really badly. They took me from Delhi airport like a terrorist. MCOCA was imposed upon me for more than two-and-a-half years. People told my parents that their son had betrayed the nation. I came to know what life was all about. Life can change in a second for the better or worse. I never thought I would go to jail. I had everything, from money to cars to apartments. [After this episode], the only thing before me was death. There was no one to help me. No one came to me till I got a clean chit. That’s why I am into politics. Nobody should go through what I went through.”

He’s certainly similar to other incarcerated politicians in one way. He often invokes his jail term as a way of connecting with the disenfranchised. And he refuses to give details of the grand plans he plans to roll out if elected.

When I asked him what he would do for the folks of Karimadom colony, he said their life reminded him of Tihar. “It’s worse than Tihar, except that they have freedom,” he said, adding that he would definitely work to ensure their rehabilitation.

He also talked about the state of his finances. While Sreesanth used to tweet photographs of his new BMW car before the scam broke out, the BCCI ban brought along huge financial losses. “The BCCI hasn’t paid me since 2013,” he said. “The Rajasthan Royals [team] paid only 40%. The Kochi Tuskers didn’t pay. When I declared my financial details in my election affidavit, people were surprised to see that I have taken a loan of around Rs 1.5 crore. They don’t know my situation. I am a normal person. I need to look after my family.”

He continues to claim that that he was an innocent victim in the larger scheme of matchfixing. “It happened just because of my lifestyle. Just because I party,” he told me. “I have changed now. I don’t go to parties. Life changes after marriage.”

Not that life has been exactly quiet since his release from Tihar. He married longtime girlfriend Bhuvaneshwari Kumari a few months later. He signed up to act in several film projects in Bollywood, Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam. His Bollywood debut film, Cabaret – a dance rom-com produced by Pooja Bhatt and co-starring Richa Chadda – is due for release on May 27. He has also signed up for the lead role as a biker with actress Nikki Galrani in the Malayalam-Telugu film, Team 5. His daughter turns one this month.

Sreesanth and his wife are rumoured to be expecting another child. And on May 19, when the poll results arrive, Sreesanth expects life to change dramatically again.

There are a few genuine Sreesanth fans, and all they want to see him do is play professional cricket. At a youth meet in his constituency, Sreesanth warned his young audience that his speech might bore them. “I can entertain you when I play cricket. But this is not cricket. Politics is serious business,” he said.

Later, when a fan piped up to ask if he will bowl for India again, he replied with a confident smile: “Of course! I’ll be the first MLA to play cricket for India.”

(In arrangement with GRIST Media)