Screen idols and bejeweled former maharajahs of dismantled Indian princely states make up part of what leaders of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's Congress (I) Party say is the progressive "new look" of the candidates they are fielding in this month's parliamentary elections.
Seizing on the growing number of film star entrants in the electoral race, Indian newspapers have dubbed the campaign "star wars." Alluding to assassinated prime minister Indira Gandhi's penchant for consulting astrologers on major political decisions, The Statesman, a conservative daily, editorialized, "The new Congress (I) leadership, in keeping with its scientific, computerized image, has shown that it no longer intends to consult the stars; it prefers to nominate them."
In an effort to draft candidates with "clean images," the Congress Party has included on its ticket several popular film stars, including Amitabh Bacchan, India's dominant Hindi film hero for the past decade; Sunil Dutt, screen star of the 1960s and now a producer, and Vyjayanthimala Bali, a former star of Hindi and Tamil-language films and patron of south Indian classical dance.
These marquee headliners and a wider supporting cast of lesser screen heroes and heroines-turned-politicians -- including south Indian opposition leaders and ex-screen idols N.T. Rama Rao and M.G. Ramachandran -- join the likes of box office attractions Prem Nazir and Raj Kumar, who have been championing the use of regional languages in the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, respectively.
All of them are crowd-drawers, but none so much as Bacchan, a longtime friend of the Gandhi family who was practically deified by millions of Indian matinee fans in 1982 after he was gravely injured while filming a karate fight scene. The late prime minister led thousands of fans to the Bombay hospital where Bacchan was reported to be near death, while India's prosperous film industry contemplated the potential loss of millions of dollars from Bacchan films still under production.
Bacchan, who for years has shunned politics, said he was moved to run for Parliament because of Indira Gandhi's assasination and because he wants to promote sectarian harmony in India.
Internecine fighting, however, has excluded another screen star who aspired to Parliament. Sivaji Ganesan, Tamil-language matinee idol and Ramachandran's only serious screen rival in Tamil Nadu, quarreled with the Congress Party and has been withdrawn from the ticket.
Buttressing the list of stars on the ballot will be newly declared parliamentary candidates from royal families that reigned over India's wealthy princely states until they were dismantled after India won independence from Britain in 1947.
The list includes maharajahs, princes and princesses who are still envied by millions of Indians, including Kunwar Natwar Singh, former diplomat and scion of the Bharatpur royal family in Rajasthan; Madhav Rao Scindia, maharajah of the Gwalior princely state, and K.P. Singh Deo, former maharajah of the princely state of Mayurbhanj in Orissa.
One former prince, put on the slate by Karnataka Congress (I) leader S. Gundu Rao, is 31-year-old Srikanta Datta Wodeyar, son of the last maharajah of the Mysore kingdom, who said in an interview in his palace 115 miles southeast of here that the inclusion of a relatively large number of former royal family members on the ticket represented proof that "the Congress (I) Party gives access to people of all walks of life."
Wodeyar, who owns race horses and a chain of hotels, said, "People treat me like a maharajah, even though the princedom is abolished. I always suffer from the problem of being mobbed wherever I go."
When asked why he thought he was put on the Congress (I) ticket, Wodeyar replied, "The Congress Party is the only national party which has accommodated people of all sections of society." He said he hoped to use his wealth, influence and popular following to bring about a "cultural bondage of all communities," and that he wants to raise tourism revenue from his palace to spend on social programs and development projects.
The prince said that opponents were criticizing him for the opulence of his palace, but he added, "I will be accessible to the people. I can see hundreds of people at a time. Space is no problem. People will not have to stand in the hot sun."