Sushant Singh Rajput: Catch-all issue for BJP-JDU poll campaign in Bihar

Topics Bihar Elections  | JDU | rjd

The controversial death of a Bollywood actor could make him the face of elections to the Bihar state assembly in October–November this year. Another actor, Kangana Ranaut, is fast evolving into the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) star campaigner as well.

Deceased actor Sushant Singh Rajput has been transformed into an icon of “Bihari pride” while Ranaut’s strident defence of Rajput as a ‘victim’ of corrupt Bollywood, is symbolically enhanced by referencing her role as a nationalist icon, the swashbuckling “Jhansi Ki Rani”. A recent demonstration in Patna staged a public recuperation of the legendary queen when a woman riding a white stallion proceeded to trample on photographs of Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. Thackeray is being blamed by Ranaut for the Mumbai police dismissing Rajput’s death as suicide.

Why has this soap opera become necessary on the eve of the Bihar elections?

It may be because of the ruling dispensation’s fears of anti-incumbency and the greater role of social media for campaigning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the continuing importance of caste in Bihar’s politics – the BJP-JDU alliance may have acquired a catch-all issue for its election campaign.

It seems that the 15-year tenure of Nitish Kumar and 6 years of BJP rule at the Centre is not good enough to showcase for the Bihar polls. The alliance government’s record of handling the Covid-19 pandemic has been dismal. It remained surprisingly indifferent to the woes of returning migrant workers. Kumar’s government has also been unable to cope with devastation caused by floods in 16 out of 38 districts affecting 7.7 million people. He has largely remained confined to his residence during the pandemic. There is no option for once again projecting Nitish Kumar as “Sushashan Babu” (Mr. Good Governance). Nor can previous governments be blamed after his three terms as chief minister.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses a virtual rally at the JD-U office, in Patna.

Governance failure of the BJP at the Centre has compounded Kumar’s difficulties. Unemployment in the country is the highest in last 45 years and Gross Domestic Product has contracted by 23.9 per cent for the first quarter of the current financial year. This is the worst record since 1996 when the government started publishing quarterly GDP data.

The incumbents needed an emotive issue to appeal to voters across caste lines. This is why the tragedy in Mumbai of a Bollywood star from Bihar, has been appropriated by them to portray non-BJP parties as hostile to the interests of Bihar.

The first politician to realise the political potential of the Sushant Singh issue was Pappu Yadav, Chief of the Jan Adhikar Party, who demanded a CBI inquiry into his suicide. He was followed by Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal  and Chirag Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party. But the BJP and JDU leaders ran away with the ball by deploying every institutional instrument at their disposal – the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate and the Narcotics Control Bureau. A captive media became their force multiplier.

Sushant Singh Rajput was the second Bollywood hero from Bihar after Shatrughan Sinha. His chocolate-box looks made him a bigger star in the Bollywood system. Other contenders could not break out of the Bhojpuri cinema circuit. Rajput’s commercial success in mainstream Bollywood was a great achievement for Biharis starved of popular icons and heroes.

In this newest reconstruction of Bihari pride, there is a subliminal suggestion that it can be defended by rallying behind the BJP and the JDU. It has steadily developed into an anti-Maharasthra, anti-Shiv Sena and anti-Congress narrative. Bihari migrants who worked in Mumbai before the pandemic are unlikely to miss the reference that they need strong political patrons to survive in a city where the anti-migrant rhetoric readily touches a cord.

The BJP’s Art and Culture Cell in Bihar has reportedly plastered 25,000 posters/stickers all over the state with the slogan “Na bhule hain, na bhoolne denge (We have not forgotten, nor will we let anyone forget)” and distributed 20,000 masks of Rajput. Prominent BJP leaders including Union Law Minister Ravishankar Prasad, Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi and Ram Kripal Yadav have made highly publicised visits to Rajput’s parents. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar also raised the issue of Rajput’s death in his first virtual rally pointing to his government speedily acceding to a CBI inquiry. The hope is that this would shift the discourse away from Covid-19, floods, joblessness and the woes of migrant labour.

Simultaneously, Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut is steadily emerging as an integral part of the BJP strategy. Her social media and TV presence can help the BJP fight its battles both in Maharashtra and Bihar. Ranaut’s outrageous self-promotion has been eagerly lapped up in social media. The demolition of illegal construction at her residence has been further mined for public sympathy. She has launched an intemperate attack on the Chief Minister and his allies, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

Ranaut’s daily social media rant against the powers that be suggests that she may be exploring a second career in politics. For actors with short working lives, politics alone gives an equally wide recognition as the big screen. She is also pressing all the right Hindutva buttons. There is already a demand that she be approached to join the BJP. By giving her “Y Plus” security cover, the BJP seems to have committed to her politically.

She will be an ideal campaigner for the BJP in Bihar. The party has relied on several Bollywood and TV stars in the past. They include Hema Malini and her husband Dharmendra, Paresh Rawal, Kiron Kher and Vinod Khanna. TV star Smriti Irani was catapulted to several important positions in the BJP government. The Sita of TV’s Ramayana, Deepika Chikhaliya, its Ravan, Arvind Trivedi, and B R Chopra’s Mahabharata’s Lord Krishna, Nitish Bharadwaj began as campaigners for the party and were subsequently brought into Parliament.

It would be surprising, if Ranaut did not go the same way. She has certainly given the BJP-JDU combine a means to distract the public from the Bihar government’s vulnerabilities before the elections.

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