Mega star Chiranjeevi—the reigning hero of Telugu cinema for nearly three decades—is reportedly all set to launch a regional party in March this year on the auspicious Telugu New Year Day, Ugadi.
Chiranjeevi, known to his fans as “Chiru”, has a fan following that transcends two generations. His latest films have not had much success at the box office, yet his screen appeal remains undiminished. He has steered clear of politics so far, although he has dabbled in social service with blood- and eye-donation efforts. Chiranjeevi has been under pressure from his family members (to enter politics) as the actor is in his early 50s, already past his prime and likely to fade away.
State leaders of the communist parties—the CPM and the CPI—have been prodding the “wavering” actor to firm up his political plans even as their national leaders have been talking of the N. Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP) being a part of their grand national “third front” plans.
Chiranjeevi is known to be mild-mannered, calculative and risk averse; qualities which are unlike that of the late N.T. Rama Rao (NTR), the popular film star and founder of the successful TDP. NTR was impulsive, aggressive and had a dare-devil attitude.
NTR was also the “screen god” of southern cinema having acted in numerous roles as Lord Ram and Krishna, while Chiranjeevi is known to be an action hero. With such tentative plans and the image of an action hero, can Chiranjeevi achieve political success? The answer is a clear no.
Thus, Chiranjeevi is not banking on his screen image alone and is planning to use the caste factor to the hilt. Chiranjeevi belongs to the dominant Kapu caste, particularly concentrated in the coastal districts of East and West Godavari districts.
The Kapu community, which has been on the margins of political power, sees in Chiranjeevi an opportunity to secure this and is expected to support his entry into politics enthusiastically.
Kapus alone cannot guarantee Chiranjeevi’s success in politics. Attempts are under way to build a rainbow caste coalition comprising the Kapus, other backward castes (OBCs) and a section of the scheduled castes. Some OBC and scheduled caste groups have already pledged their support to the film star.
In addition, the actor has also been assured of help and support from Naxal cadres, who have a strong influence in the Telangana region of the state.
The Congress party is aware of Chiranjeevi’s potential to damage its prospects, as the Kapus have traditionally voted for the Congress. Hence, the party has made many attempts to appease the actor with many allurements to ward off his political entry. He was conferred the Padma Bhushan in 2006 and the actor’s late father-in-law, a comedian of yesteryears, was also conferred a Padma Shri. No wonder, Padma awards have lost some of their sheen given such political and petty considerations!
Chiranjeevi was recently in the national news when his daughter eloped with her boyfriend and the couple has made a spectacle of their elopement alleging that they fear for their lives from him.
Some senior politicians belonging to a rival party are alleged to have actively egged on the couple in this episode to sully the actor’s reputation.
In 1983, N.T. Rama Rao launched the TDP and rode to power within six months. NTR won a thumping majority on the emotive issue of injury to the “Telugu pride”—as Congress chief ministers were considered weak, ineffective and ill-treated by the Congress’ national leadership—and the hugely attractive populist promise of offering rice to the poor at Rs2 per kg.
Cut to 2008. There are no emotive issues to be exploited. And, there are no conceivable populist schemes that any party can offer, as the present Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy-led Congress government in the state is implementing a slew of populist programmes and is promising more.
Though there are no visible signs of anti-incumbency in the state, there is widespread perception that corruption has become rampant under the Congress government in the state and that the OBCs have been neglected.
Sensing these limitations, the TDP last week attempted to woo OBCs—a voter bloc that has sided mostly with the TDP in the past—with a commitment to give them a third of seats in the assembly and parliament elections in the state.
The tricky Telangana issue has become a political football with every party trying to exploit it, but not one is seriously working towards it. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi is once again trying to whip up latent Telangana sentiment by threatening mass resignation of its MLAs and MPs.
In all this confusion and posturing by various parties, is there room for Chiranjeevi to make it big on the political stage? That is the key question every voter and politician is asking in Andhra Pradesh today.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development and Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org