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

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.

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.

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