Celebrities in politics: Good or bad?

Representation is at the heart of democracy. But should non-political persons represent people in the parliament? In law classes, I often face this question. By now, of course, the question is being rallied from social platforms to mainstream narratives. The 12th parliamentary election has just ended and a good number of people from the cultural ecosphere have won the seats or shown potential in politics. The media has a focus on the celebrity phenomenon. Let us call it a try to culturize politics.

Many have been highly critical of the culturalization of politics. They show their reservation about the invasion of politics by the artistry. Particularly, critics express their concern about harbouring artists, singers or sportsmen into the realm of parliamentary election. Not only do they question their ‘representative’ character but also wonder what a folk singer like Momotaz Begum, a film star like Ferdous Ahmed or cricketers like Shakib Al Hasan and Masharafe Murtaza have to offer to ‘politics’. A large segment of people in our society, I am sure, share a similar view. I cannot, however, persuade myself to delve into this skepticism. To me, the aroma of the question tends to simplify the idea of ‘representation’. I'll tell you why. In saying so, I will argue that our traditional wisdom about representative democracy needs to be revisited.

Critics say, “What does Momotaz or for that purpose, Subrona Mustafa, Ferdous Ahmed or Shakib Al Hasan know about politics”? The people having lawyerly wisdom put it thus, “How can cultural faces understand the process of law-making, where the only experience they possess are: singing ‘bukta faitta jai’ or lip-singing ‘assalamu alaikum bianshab’ or ‘hitting and throwing the cricket ball’ and so forth. The talk-showers submit, “celebrityhood does not hold any democratic ethos.” Thus, the political use of stardom has been widely questioned as a cynical use of desperate populism. One interesting exception is perhaps Barrister Sumon, a YouTube celebrity, who has crossed the river of election by his social populism, probably for having a Bar-at-Law as a prefix to his name.

A recent example of the concept’s effective translation was perhaps Indian PM Narendra Modi’s skilful use of artists as one of his political symbolisms in the 2014 and 2019 Indian general elections. Our PM Sheikh Hasina has also crafted the issue with all its pathos and bathos. The approach arguably tends to culturalise the politics when politics suffers from a sardonic connotation

The view needs a review, to say the least. Particularly, the involvement of ‘popular culture’ in politics is to be seen as a new form of political communication. A recent example of the concept’s effective translation was perhaps Indian PM Narendra Modi’s skilful use of artists as one of his political symbolisms in the 2014 and 2019 Indian general elections. Our PM Sheikh Hasina has also crafted the issue with all its pathos and bathos. The approach arguably tends to culturalise the politics when politics suffers from a sardonic connotation.

Hanna Pitkin (1967) argues that representation in principle implies the “making present” as well as “acting for” a group. The representative should be responsive to the represented. At the same time, a representative cannot be that when he/she virtuously executes superior commands. He or she is not a “mere tool” but the represented should be present in the representative. Thus, a representative is both a trustee and a delegate in the power paradigm. Pitkin’s theoretical analysis of representation posits the density of the concept, as well as its multidimensional nature. Thus, getting elected through voting is one important facet of ‘representation’, if not all.

Mansbridge (1999) argues that the legislature should attract persons of relevant characteristics. It means that a person wishing to be a member of the legislature must have the expertise of law-making, parliamentary process and the ability to speak for the people. From this angle, a politician attached to public life is more likely to become a parliamentarian. However, people from other strata can qualify the same to meet the demands of the day.

The modern age has turned into an issue-based pluralistic world. Thus, people from different groups and strata must be called to parliament to effectively echo the views of the groups they represent. According to Mansbbridge, what he terms “descriptive representation” can contribute to the democratic building process in the following contexts: i) adequate communication; ii) innovative thinking; iii) ability to convince; and iv) increasing legitimacy. The life of a unicameral legislature can better benefit, in addition to the political figures, from the voices of unheard. Thus, diversified representation may progressively impact the legislative process.

As such, sports-culture-music-acting-youtubing influenced politics, it may be argued, resonates with the people in a way that conventional politics cannot do. True, celebrities are not politicians at the first instance and the process by which they are chosen marginalises the issues of political substance. But the word ‘representation’ as argued above should not only accommodate ‘nirbachone darano’ (standing at) but also ‘kaj kore jawa’ (acting for) for the people. The elected nature of representativeness should also be understood as a symbolic relationship that negotiates for the people. This symbolicism is achieved through parliament deliberation, featuring in promos of public importance (i.e. health, sports, cultural and social welfare), briefing the mass media, appearing on TV shows, performing in public rallies and performing at programs having missionary messages of the pursuit of happiness.

Also Read

In a word, we may call this aspect of representation ‘appearance’. The ‘appearance’, to borrow John Street's idea (2004), is a form of rational choice and should be understood as a cultural performance of the political process (a good blend politics and culture is MP Shiblee Sadique of Dinajpur). The elements of celebrityhood, in the first instance, establish their claim of representation. This is how Momotaz, Ferdous, Shakib, Mahi and the like attain the ability to establish the claim to represent the people. As such, when Momotaz appears before the audience, she constantly renews people’s mandate through her transcendental messages of folk music (sadly she has lost). Music and in that way, culture speaks of our shared humanity, to borrow the words from American musicologist Alan Lomax. The same line of reasoning can be offered for other branches of human aesthetics. For if a law affecting cricket is tabled, Shakib or Mashrafee can meaningfully contribute to its enactment more than others, and if a law relating to performing art is introduced Fedous Ahmed or Suborna Mustafa or Asaduzzaman Noor or the like can have an informed better say in its making. Why should all these be understood as divorced from politics?

Political philosophy, many claim, does not go with screen or cultural performances. The claim holds substance to a large extent. But one may notice that TV shows shadow the form of political voting. Thus, programs like Bangladeshi idol or ‘close up tomakei khujche Bangladesh’ embrace considerations having political ambience. I sensed this nuance of popular politicism both positively and negatively when Mong Marma became Bangladeshi Idol and Srabon Kumar got ousted (2013). Mong’s indigenous orientation was a strength, whereas, Srabon’s ‘dalit’ status presumably went against his brilliance. As such, the ‘representativeness’ and political hue are very much embroidered in the concept of popular ‘appearance’.

Thus, leadership from the cultural figures or sports maestro is legitimated by their success as performers in an environment where the state monopolizes the form of political communication. The use of folk songs, acting, cricketing or footballing is somewhat symptomatic of tolerance, culturalisation of politics and bringing back its aesthetics. In the case of these artists, therefore, we need to see political representation as a cultural act that seeks to realize a form of political attractiveness through the gestures and images of popular culture.

There are obvious apprehensions for squeezing the space for real politicians. At the end of the day, celebrity candidates are performers, not lawmakers. Parliament becomes vibrant once the lawmakers deliberate in-depth upon constitutional amendments, law reforms and passing of budgets. These concerns are not incurable. Increased use of experts, ensuring a balanced pool of nominations by the political parties, championing the idea of participatory law-making, cooperation between the stakeholders etc. are some devices by which the vices of increased political involvement of the cultural and sports figures can be minimized. But viewed from “responsiveness”, as long as, the wishes, needs and interests of the people they represent, the democratic ethos shall sustain.

Representativeness as a cultural act mirrors society. Bad politicians chain society in many respects. In response, culturised politics may yield an educative and emancipative effect on the democratic process. It brings an aura of popular legitimacy. Law is a culture, constitution is a culture. The lawmakers should be the ambassadors of that culture. The Jatiya Sangsad as a ‘house of the nation’ should nurture our creative and curative politics.

*SM Masum Billah is a professor of law at Jagannath University.