Merger dividends

Print edition : March 11, 2011

CHIEF MINISTER N. KIRAN Kumar Reddy with K. Chiranjeevi after the merger in Hyderabad on February 9. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Chiranjeevi's merger of his Praja Rajyam Party with the Congress gives the latter's government in Andhra Pradesh a measure of stability.

TIME and again, election results have shown that the crowds pulled by star campaigners at public meetings may not always be in direct proportion to the votes polled by the parties they lead.

Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) president K. Chiranjeevi understood this disconnect only after his party received a drubbing in the 2009 Assembly elections. The party had relied heavily on the megastar's capacity to draw crowds. But its 18 members in the Legislative Assembly constituted less than 7 per cent of the 294 seats grossly disproportionate to the massive turnout at Chiranjeevi's rallies.

When Chiranjeevi launched his party on August 26, 2008, at a mammoth rally in Tirupati, he promised to usher in social justice, eliminate the gap between haves and have-nots, and crusade against the Congress' corruption and misgovernance. The aim was to project himself as a messaiah of the backward classes. But the PRP, like many regional parties, relied more on populism than on programmes with economic substance. After its electoral debacle, the PRP did little to build an organisational structure. There was near-anarchy in the party, with two MLAs defecting to the camp of rebel Congress leader Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy and two others joining the chorus for a separate Telangana. Chiranjeevi's decision to merge the PRP with the Congress has not only breathed life into the Kiran Kumar Reddy government but also given his own party colleagues hope of securing Cabinet berths.

The lure of donning the greasepaint is often too powerful to resist for actors like Chiranjeevi who have spent a lifetime in the world of make-believe. Understandably, he has expressed his desire to act in a film, like the legendary N.T. Rama Rao who acted in a film while he was Chief Minister. Pictures of NTR, sporting a grey beard and saffron clothes, signing official files on the sets of a film vividly portrayed his all-consuming urge to act.

The political stage was, however, different when NTR came to power in January 1983. The Congress was in a shambles with dissidents gunning for one Chief Minister after another.

A political vacuum was crying to be filled, and NTR stepped in by seeking the people's mandate on the plank of self-pride of the Telugus.

No such political space was available to Chiranjeevi. The Congress and the alliance led by the Telugu Desam Party seemed to share the State's political space equally when he entered politics. By swinging 15.75 per cent of the votes, Chiranjeevi did not do himself any great favour but inflicted damage on both the Congress and the TDP. The Congress' tally stopped at 156 seats and the TDP's at 92 seats, although the vote share of the alliance was just 1.99 per cent less than the ruling party's.

The Congress government, which initially seemed unsure of how to tackle Jagan's political belligerence and the rising clamour for a separate Telangana, has now gained a semblance of stability. It has 155 MLAs of its own. Though two dozen of them are sailing with Jagan, the support of 18 PRP MLAs, along with seven of Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) and three independents should give it a measure of confidence.

Before the merger, Congress MLAs were a confused lot, ready to clutch at any straw for survival. Riding high on the sympathy for his father and former Chief Minister, the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, the resentment within the party over the Telangana issue, and the Congress leadership's inability to act against him, Jagan capitalised on the atmosphere of uncertainty. He organised yatras, hunger strikes and protests and, in the process, hived off a chunk of the Congress party' grass-root level base and drew more than two dozen MLAs into his fold.

Once the political volatility subsides, Congressmen will be less inclined to look for newer pastures, especially in Jagan's camp. The party can also hope that Chiranjeevi's entry will bring along a chunk of the Kapu voters in coastal Andhra who were instrumental in swinging the vote share in favour of the Congress in earlier elections. The film star's presence in the Congress will check their possible migration to Jagan's camp.

Not all Kapus may back Chiranjeevi as the merger has caused consternation among those who expected him to provide an alternative to the Reddy-dominated Congress and the Kamma-dominated Telugu Desam. So it may be premature to conclude that Chiranjeevi will halt Jagan's march. The megastar will, however, provide a counterweight to Jaganmohan Reddy's roadshows by hitting the road himself and campaigning against the former Member of Parliament in the byelections to fill the Kadapa Lok Sabha and Pulivendula Assembly seats.

For almost a year, ever since it extended support to the Congress in the Rajya Sabha elections, the PRP has been moving closer to the party. Leveraging this advantage to checkmate an aggressive Jagan, who was claiming that he had the numbers to topple the government, the Congress leadership decided not to clinch the issue. It deputed senior leader A.K. Antony to Hyderabad to set up a meeting between Chiranjeevi and AICC president Sonia Gandhi.

The hurry with which Chiranjeevi announced the merger on the road outside 10 Janpath after his meeting with Sonia Gandhi and without extracting any promises on the social justice plank suggests that he has been assured of a political future. Whether it will mean a position at the Centre or even the Chief Minister's post, provided he delivers a sufficient number of MLAs in the 2014 elections, will be known with the passage of time.

Beyond giving the Congress a sense of security, the merger is unlikely to significantly influence the decision on Telangana as Chiranjeevi did a volte-face on the issue. Initially, he supported a Samajika Telangana where the masses and not feudal lords would call the shots but later backtracked and declared himself a votary of a united Andhra Pradesh.

What has to be watched now is whether the Congress party's next target for merger will be the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). Its president, K. Chandrasekhara Rao, himself had volunteered for a merger with the Congress before the 2004 elections when his party's strength was untested in the elections. But after his party's swept the Assembly byelections last year, he is singing a different tune. The question of a merger does not arise. Ours is not a cinema party, he has said.

The shrewd tactician that he is, Chandrasekhara Rao fought the 2004 Assembly elections in alliance with the Congress and the 2009 elections as part of a TDP-led alliance, a clear indication that he is not weighed down by any ideological baggage. Ultimately, the question may boil down to the terms under which he will merge his party after the Centre finally agrees to create separate a Telangana State or without any such commitment.

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