Whither Stardom In Politics?
Assessing Chiranjeevi’s Future
K Naresh Kumar, Power Politics, March 2011
Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam Party with the Congress in Andhra Pradesh has raised questions about the shifting political patterns and trends in southern India. From Hyderabad to Chennai, the two cities where film stars could get into a political career whenever they wanted, at least till two decades ago, the doors are slowly being shut on the overarching political ambitions of superannuated superstars, argues K Naresh Kumar from Hyderabad.
In many ways, the rude reality check was just waiting to happen. Only that it was sooner than expected.
The early February 2011 merger of megastar Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam Party with the Congress in Andhra Pradesh, unconditionally at that, has once again raised important questions about the shifting political patterns and trends in southern India.
From Hyderabad to Chennai, the two cities where film stars could get into a political career whenever they wanted, at least till two decades ago, the doors are slowly being shut on the overarching political ambitions of superannuated superstars.
Earlier, in at least as far as a host of illustrious stars like M G Ramachandran, N T Rama Rao and the temperamental Jayalalitha were concerned, it only looked’ natural’ for them to move on to the political stage and keep serving the fans who had kept them at the numero uno slot for a long, long time. Not anymore.
It does mean, at least for the present, that a successful hero is not an automatic choice for the chief minister’s post. Chiranjeevi’s example is a stark reminder of this fact. In a region where reel merged seamlessly with the real, it no more seems to be an open and shut case.
The summer of 2011 will decide the fate of retired actors like Vijayakanth in neighbouring Tamil Nadu who are now sidekicks to the Dravidian party politicians and who will probably contest the forthcoming Assembly elections in alliance with either of the two parties, ruling the state for close to 45 years now.
Back in Hyderabad, Chiranjeevi’s political identity as a leader of a party is now well and truly over. But it is worthwhile to look into the genesis of his outfit which this 55-year old hero of Telugu cinema had launched over two-and-a-half years ago, in August 2008, which coincided with his birth month with a glittering opening ceremony in the famous temple town of Tirupati.
The pundits, then, could not help observing the similarities between his silver screen senior- N T Rama Rao – who after being at the top of the heap in Telugu cinema for over three decades, had floated the Telugu Desam party in 1982. NTR had positioned its USP to be Telugu pride and Telugu self-respect in the backdrop of the brazenly dictatorial ways of the Congress party who had made the Chief Minister’s kursi, some sort of a revolving chair, by changing the candidates at will, remote controlling it from New Delhi. It is now part of political folklore that he managed to bag the coveted CM’s chair barely nine months after he launched his political party.
Praja Rajyam too had started off with the planks of ‘social justice’ and ‘inclusive development’ as its main campaign thrust, largely owing to the leftist leanings of the advisors whom the mercurial matinée idol had at that time. The launch was frenzied, as expected in cine-crazy Andhra Pradesh where fans travelled in special trains, buses and even undertaking padyatra in a bid to wish the newborn all the best. Battling legal issues and environmental clearances, the inaugural function of Praja Rajyam launch promptly raised the hopes of a whole lot of people in the state- who thought naively- the messiah had arrived. Cut to 2009 elections and there were enough theory-floaters who have been alleging that Chiranjeevi was the chosen one by the then Congress chief minister – YSR- to checkmate his rivals in two important regions of the state – Telangana, where K Chandrasekhara Rao with his TRS party was threatening to severely dent the latter’s chances and Seemandhra where the Telugu Desam Party and Chandrababu Naidu were waging a tough battle to return to power in Hyderabad.
The massive crowds which greeted the film hero wherever he went with his entourage of family members and trusted advisors gave the Congress enough reason to estimate that he could definitely impede the chances of its rivals by cutting into their vote shares. PRP did get around 18 assembly seats, a disappointing result, given the high hopes that the star had raised amongst his impressionable fans and supporters.
A cocktail of caste, cine popularity and the beginner’s advantage could not work beyond a point for Chiranjeevi, who was cautious and not harsh on the Congress party as expected. Thereby lending credence to the barbs which his opponents hurled at him- he was allegedly the cat’s paw for the master plan that the Congress had in the state.
With the results of the 2009 elections clearly highlighting the need for Chiranjeevi to keep working harder, which he was not able to, the only option left for him was to keep floating in and out of issues which were rapidly reaching a crescendo – the Telangana issue for one. After a cautious beginning on the subject when he strangely talked about supporting a ‘social Telangana’ the shift in his politics veered towards retaining a united state later, earning him and his family, the permanent wrath of the Telangana supporters who made life difficult for him whenever he wanted to visit the region.
In many ways, beginning over two years ago, the approach towards maintaining a soft stand on Congress policies paid well for the megastar, who was always relied upon to come to the former’s rescue, especially when the Jaganmohan Reddy factor disturbed the political base of the party.
Battling against a fuzzy approach to his political ideologies, constantly yearning to don the greasepaint and romance with nubile 20-somethings, Chiranjeevi had openly confessed that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his cine field senior, Rajinikanth, who almost made it into politics a full decade and more ago in Chennai but stayed away in the end to keep in tact his solidly successful celluloid career. Having got in into the murky world of regional politics, Chiru (as he is popularly called in the state) now wanted to get out; his rapidly depleting control on his flock of MLAs too being a moot point to his change of heart.
Andhra Pradesh politics thus seems to have no use for heroes who want to begin a second innings in the state affairs. This was actually a trend which Chandrababu Naidu firmly established in 1995, when he successfully usurped political power from his ailing father-in-law, N T Rama Rao, who by then had become an aging politician and lost much of his cine popularity which propelled him to the CM’s chair three times in his 13-year role as a politician.
Naidu had clearly demonstrated that he had no time or role for cine heroes and heroines in the newly created version of Telugu Desam party, which he successfully steered to two successive election victories in the ‘90s. The exit of Jayaprada, the ethereally beautiful heroine who was the heroine of N T Rama Rao in the’70s, to Uttar Pradesh is an effective example. The cine industry of Hyderabad had all its heroes and heroines in attendance and Naidu only exploited their vulnerability by giving them a few tax sops but never used them to further his electoral chances openly.
YSR, Naidu’s successor too made these cine stars align themselves in his favour and only kept them under his check without succumbing to their allurements and requests to tweak the rules in their favour. In fact, YSR used the violations indulged by the cine fraternity in allotments and illegal use of subsidized land to successfully make them stay away from open political support to his rivals.
The political reincarnation of Chiranjeevi is to be seen in this backdrop. Already, many in the Congress party have only grudgingly made their acceptance clear while the star still hopes to be ‘useful’ to his new, century old party and newer identity as a mainstream politician who also can act!