In the southern states and particularly in film-crazy Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, film stars have made a seamless transition to a political role in the past. Superstars of yesteryears such as M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) in Andhra Pradesh founded hugely successful regional parties which ruled their respective states for many years.
With the arrival of Tamil superstar Vijayakanth and Telugu “mega star” Chiranjeevi on the political scene in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, respectively—the two crucial southern states that together send 81 representatives to the Lok Sabha—the key question is whether they can replicate the success of MGR and NTR in their respective states.
Vijayakanth made his political debut on the eve of the 2006 polls to the state assembly by founding the regional party, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK). Though he was the lone member of his party to be elected to the legislative assembly, he made his presence felt by polling 8.5% of the popular vote and cutting into the support base of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)—though more into the former than the latter.
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After nearly two years, the DMDK has emerged as a third major political force in Tamil Nadu. The situation in the state is such that the alliance—be it the AIADMK-led one or the DMK one—that includes the DMDK will sweep polls in the state.
As if Vijayakanth’s presence was not enough, there are persistent demands from the fans of Rajnikanth asking him to take the plunge into politics. Recently, the superstar’s fans, in a bid to exert pressure on the actor who is biding his time over a political role, announced a name for his party and even unfurled its flag.
The actor has so far resisted this pressure and would appear to be working towards a 2011 entry on the eve of polls to the Tamil Nadu state assembly.
In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, mega-star Chiranjeevi’s fledgling party, Praja Rajyam, has emerged a major player within two months of its formal launch and is giving the jitters to both the ruling Congress party and the Opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP).
The key question in politically aware Andhra Pradesh is whether Chiranjeevi can storm to power when elections are held next year, much as the late NTR did in his time, or simply emerge as an alternative pole in Andhra politics a la Vijayakanth in Tamil Nadu.
Chiranjeevi’s party launch function at Tirupati in August was attended by nearly a million people and the actor’s hugely successful tours in different parts of the state have unnerved and upset the calculations of the Congress and the TDP.
Still, where both Chiranjeevi and Vijayakanth suffer is the lack of a political vacuum that existed in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, respectively, when NTR and MGR made their political entry. In addition, the ruling governments in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are hugely populist ones. And the ruling regimes of M. Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu and Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra Pradesh have turned even more populist to ward off the challenge of the film stars.
If Vijayakanth and Chiranjeevi have emerged as major political forces in their respective states, it is because of their screen appeal. Both have a huge impact on the youth who make up a significant voting bloc—accounting for nearly a third of the electorate—ensuring the actors’ instant political success. Together, these factors mean that this actor-turned-politician duo have instantly acquired political strength, but lack the necessary strength to win elections on their own steam.
Their political support is ephemeral as it emanates from their screen glamour. For instance, if Rajnikanth were to make an entry into politics, Vijayakanth’s support would vanish almost instantly. Similarly, the support received by Chiranjeevi is likely to see a dip if the rival TDP were to press NTR’s clan and its popular in-house film stars into service in a major way.
The days of solo political success by southern film stars are truly over, for glamour alone cannot achieve political success. Thus, the success mantra for actors-turned politicians is simple: leverage their ephemeral political support for a power-sharing role in smart coalitions to build strong regional parties. If they fail to take the coalition route and want to play solo as in their films, their political edifice will crumble as quickly as they have built it.
Film heroes may then become spoilers for other parties and their own political future.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org