Star attraction

Published : Sep 12, 2008 00:00 IST

Andhra Pradesh: Megastar Chiranjeevis foray into politics could change the political landscape of the State.

in Hyderabad

After reigning supreme on the silver screen for nearly three decades, Telugu actor Chiranjeevi has lit up the political scene in Andhra Pradesh by announcing his decision to enter public life. His foray into politics is set to alter the political landscape of the State, which is now dominated by the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

The big picture will be clear once he unveils his socio-economic ideology, political strategy and stand on contentious issues at the launch of his party in Tirupati on August 26, the birthday of Mother Teresa. At his maiden political press conference on August 17, the seasoned actor made a huge impression on fans and prospective followers alike with his panache in fielding questions. Sidestepping all issues of significance and avoiding criticism of political rivals, he turned the spotlight entirely on himself.

Some clever planning ensured that his political entry caused a big bang in the media much like the crackers his men burst outside the press conference venue. Issues could be spelt out at the public meeting later along with the unveiling of the partys name and its flag.

This strategy of attaching importance to form over substance has paid dividends. In contrast to Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy and TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu, who have been in politics for more than a quarter century, dictated events in the past 10 years and often engaged each other in ugly scraps, Chiranjeevi has emerged as a fresh face without bearing any ill-will.

His detractors faulted him for lacking depth even as his followers were disappointed at his failure to criticise Rajasekhara Reddy and Chandrababu Naidu. Yet, even without disclosing his agenda, Chiranjeevi has sent Congress and TDP leaders scurrying to re-draft their political strategies.

All through the eight months since Chiranjeevis men were providing the build-up for his partys launch, Congress leaders appeared a smug lot. The complacency stemmed from a feeling that the TDP was not a serious challenge to the Congress re-election bid in 2009 because of desertions from that party and the mistakes committed by Chandrababu Naidu.

Chandrababu Naidu was initially confident that the anti-incumbency sentiment against the government would catapult the TDP back to power. He even tried to emulate Rajasekhara Reddys election-winning 1,600-km-long padayatra of 2003 by undertaking one himself.

But as Chiranjeevis political arangetram drew near and desertions from his camp rose, Chandrababu Naidu was forced to cut short his 150-day Mee Kosam (For You) yatra. However, he believes that the Congress will lose its traditional Kapu vote in coastal Andhra to Chiranjeevi and that this will help the TDP.

Chiranjeevi has been toying with the idea of entering politics for nearly a year now. The driving force behind his makeover from actor to politician, quite surprisingly, was former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. When the National Democratic Alliance was in power with A.B. Vajpayee as Prime Minister, it was Chandrababu Naidu who made a strong pitch for the nomination of Kalam for President as he was a Muslim.

Kalams take in asking Chiranjeevi to look beyond his film career, according to the star himself, was that people had a poor opinion of present-day politicians. At a dinner meeting, the former President told him how students, in their interactions with him, abhorred politics and any day wished to become doctors, engineers, scientists or astronauts.

Chiranjeevi banded together a core team consisting of people from diverse backgrounds, including a gastroenterologist, a builder and a non-resident Indian, apart from his brother-in-law and film-maker Allu Aravind and actor-brothers Nagendra Babu and Pawan Kalyan. While this coterie meticulously mapped the path for his transition from reel to real life, the megastar, as his fans refer to him, remained behind the scene.

Much like a masala film that has loads of suspense, this group raised the levels of anxiety among political parties and Chiranjeevis followers. Its members addressed numerous public and private meetings but never brought Chiranjeevi under the glare of cameras. Once the script and storyline were ready, they raised the curtains and Chiranjeevi gave a commendable performance.

He said all the right things he would dedicate the rest of his life to the service of the people, particularly the poor, who had been denied the fruits of development. The backdrop for the stage from which he addressed the press conference had portraits of B.R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Jyothirao Phule, to leave none in doubt about his social agenda.

However, Chiranjeevi remains an enigma since no one knows his views on contentious and politically crucial issues such as a separate Telangana State, Maoist violence and the issue of classifying Scheduled Castes into A, B, C & D groups for reservation in employment and education. What is known, mostly through inference, is that he will champion the cause of all backward classes.

While numerous politicos were waiting to hitch on to his bandwagon, the star first invited Katti Padma Rao, Dalit writer and activist, into his party fold. Harima Rama Jogaian, Member of Parliament from Narsapur, who resigned from the Congress and the Lok Sabha, joined him later.

Comparisons are made inevitably between Chiranjeevi and N.T. Rama Rao, the superstar of yesteryear who strode Telugu filmdom like a colossus for several decades before making a huge mark in politics. He emerged as a courageous politician who took on Indira Gandhi by advocating federalism and rode back to power after being unseated in a Congress-inspired coup in August 1984. He had a passion for everything he did and was dedicated to the uplift of the poor.

No sooner had he plunged into politics than NTR pitched for schemes to supply rice at Rs.2 a kilo to the poor and provide them dhotis and saris besides roofs over their heads. His bold approach paid handsomely when within nine months of launching his party on March 29, 1981, he rode to power. In contrast, Chiranjeevi has chosen to step quite gingerly into politics and avoid a confrontationist approach.

NTRs victory was attributed to the huge political vacuum that existed then. There was no Opposition worth the name and the Congress had changed four Chief Ministers in five years. One of them, T. Anjaiah, was humiliated by Rajiv Gandhi who did not allow him into his helicopter while on an aerial visit to flood-hit areas in the State. NTR successfully raised the slogan of Telugu atma gouravam (self-respect) and won.

With two strong parties in the forefront and no dissidence in the Congress, there is no such vacuum now. Moreover, the TDP has an extensive network of cadre and an active leadership with experience in governance and politics. That the Congress will be no pushover in any election is evident from its credible show in the Assembly byelections and local body polls in the past four years. Only the Telangana Rashtra Samithi is at a low after its poor showing in the May 2008 byelections triggered by the apparently unwise decision of its supremo K. Chandrasekhar Rao to ask all party MPs and MLAs to resign, a year ahead of the general elections.

Chiranjeevi is, however, convinced that there is a political vacuum. Otherwise, he would not be receiving such a huge response from his supporters across the State. Did he not make a mark in films when two great actors, NTR and Akkineni Nageswara Rao, were still around? Although Chiranjeevi has not commented about his electoral prospects, his close supporters say that his party will win 175-225 seats in the 294-member Assembly.

To some extent, this overconfidence stems from the support they expect from the Kapu community to which Chiranjeevi belongs in the relatively prosperous coastal Andhra region. The community is seeking a bigger share of the political cake and is demanding its inclusion in the list of Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Chiranjeevi would project himself as the champion of Kapus, OBCs, Dalits and the tribal people and bring them under a single umbrella.

Quite alive to the damage such a heady caste mix could cause to their prospects, the Congress and the TDP are working overtime to woo the OBCs. Both parties have promised them everything under the sun, including allocation of one-third of the Assembly seats.

Chiranjeevis trump card, however, is his star appeal among the film-crazy youth who see their favourite actors as demigods. The Telugu film industry accounts for the highest number of films produced in India after Hindi. Even in the past, Telugu film personalities have done well at the hustings. To name a few, actors G. Krishna, Jamuna and K. Jaggaiah and producer D. Rama Naidu were Lok Sabha members.

Megastar Chiranjeevi thus cannot be blamed for nursing political ambitions ever since he began essaying different roles in recent films. In Indira, a film about factional violence in the Rayalaseema region, Chiranjeevi demonstrated how to tackle the age-old problem. His Tagore was about ending corruption.

Not to lag behind, the Congress and the TDP have joined the star war. Chandrababu Naidu, who was not known to be on the best of terms with father-in-law NTR and his family, has roped in his actor brothers-in-law Balakrishna and Harikrishna and Harikrishnas son to campaign for him.

The Congress has pulled Krishna out of political retirement by restoring five acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) to his Padmalaya Studios in the posh Jubilee Hills area of Hyderabad, triggering a controversy in the process. Apparently, it is trying to woo his son and current superstar, Mahesh Babu. Another actor, Rajasekhar, and his wife, Jeevitha, are in the Congress camp.

Konidela Siva Sankara Prasad was born on August 22, 1955, at Mogalthur village in West Godavari district. It was perhaps the change of name to Chiranjeevi that brought him unprecedented fame in films. Now, will his move to the next scene of action, politics, bring him stardom?

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