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Chiranjeevi's Entry into Andhra Pradesh Politics

Helped by an enthusiastic media, Telugu film star Chiranjeevi's entry into Andhra Pradesh politics became the most talked about event in the state. However, the star has carefully avoided criticising prominent politicians in the state. Moreover, he has failed to take a strong stand on issues like special economic zones, caste and the demand for Telangana. In order to appeal to the people, he needs to be seen to be leading a fight against the "villainy" of the prominent politicians and the various social "evils".

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW october 11, 200817Chiranjeevi’s Entry into Andhra Pradesh PoliticsK Rama RayaluHelped by an enthusiastic media, Telugu film star Chiranjeevi’s entry into Andhra Pradesh politics became the most talked about event in the state. However, the star has carefully avoided criticising prominent politicians in the state. Moreover, he has failed to take a strong stand on issues like special economic zones, caste and the demand for Telangana. In order to appeal to the people, he needs to be seen to be leading a fight against the “villainy” of the prominent politicians and the various social “evils”.The entry of matinee idol Chiranjeevi into politics in Andhra Pradesh(AP) has been the most talked about event in recent times in the state. The media has played a significant role in building up the much required hype before the formal announcement by Chiranjeevi on August 17. For the media it was an ideal “story” with all the right ingredients to make it a hit. Chiranjeevi is one of the most popular heroes amongst the current lot of stars in AP, with a large fan following across the state. He hails from the politically and numerically strong Kapu community which has long harboured a desire to have one amongst them as the chief minister of AP. An aggressive media, especially the electronic media, starved for news (the state has four 24-hour Telugu news channels with a few more to be launched soon) lost no opportunity to improve its ratings with extensive coverage of the events surrounding Chiranjeevi’s entry into politics. It appeared as if the media bosses wanted to make up for the oppor-tunity missed in the early 1980s to cover the original story of N T Rama Rao’s politi-cal entry. They lost no time in driving home the similarities between both events and tried to promote this as the “remake” of NTR’s entry.For their part Chiranjeevi and his close key advisers – brothers Nagender Babu and Pavan Kalyan, both stars in their own right – and brother-in-law Allu Aravind (a leading producer and movie distributor adept at promoting heroes and marketing movies) essayed their roles perfectly. Theyhave for almost a year now managed to keep the issue of Chiranjeevi’s political entry alive without any formal announce-ment from any of them, including Chiran-jeevi himself. They cleverly manipulated the media to their advantage. Aravind considered the strategic “brain” behind Chiranjeevi’s success in the film industry, and who knows the media’s penchant for sound bytes coined the phrase “we are waiting on the platform for our train to arrive to get on board”. This statement was a huge hit with the media and became a focus point in endless de-bates with “experts” trying to read be-tween the lines as to when the announce-ment would be made. Nagender Babu went a step further and undertook tours across the state to meet Chiranjeevi’s fans and elicit their opinions on the former’s entry into politics. Similar exercises were done in the United States and other coun-tries by Chiranjeevi’s fans and well-wish-ers. Nagender Babu’s tours were shrouded in secrecy with the media denied access to these meetings. This further whetted the appetite of the media. Hours, if not days, of airtime was spent on speculating about when Chiranjeevi would make the formal announcement. Just when the interest levels were appearing to drop there would be some activity in Chiranjeevi’s camp and the media would do the needful. If the media announcement on August 17 by Chiranjeevi of his formal entry into politics can be considered as the “trailer” the actual “release” was billed for August 26 in Tirupathi where Chiranjeevi announced that “Praja Rajyam” would be the name of his party in front of lakhs of his supporters. In filmy terms this was a dream “release” for anyone and the nail biting suspense was over with the formal announcement. The hype and suspense was instrumental in laying the foundation of the hero’s “entry”, establishing his character as a soft, positive, philanthropist forgoing his fame and wealth to serve the people by primarily ushering in a “change” in the lives and politics of the people, a la NTR and MGR. In fact Chiranjeevi referred toNTR as a motivating factor for his entry into politics. Substance vs HaloChiranjeevi also invoked the names of B R Ambedkar, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule and A P J Abdul Kalam as the key persons who influenced his decision to serve the people by entering politics. Against this backdrop the exten-sive groundwork and strategic planning done by Chiranjeevi’s team before the actor took the plunge was useful to an extent in creating a “halo” around him and putting a positive “spin” on his role. K Rama Rayalu ( is with ValueLabs, Hyderabad.

They seem to have realised that their strengths are the heroic image of Chiranjeevi coupled with his philanthropic activities, a strong and aggressive fan following across the state, and the support of a m ajority of the Kapu voters. They have been using this strength judiciously by reaching out to all sections like lawyers, farmers, women teachers, doctors, factory workers, etc, through the network of fans’ associations. A series of meetings have been held all over the state mobilising these sections. The numerous 24-hour news channels starved for news lapped up these events and repeatedly tele cast them thereby creating an impression of

an imminent major “change in the air” in the political landscape of AP. A close look at the ground situation does not show any significant e vidence of a s weeping mood for change among the people. While there is always space for any number of political parties repre senting the aspirations of various sections of society, the claim that there is a c omplete vacuum in the opposition camp is far-fetched.

Chiranjeevi’ team seems to have identified his weaknesses well in advance and, in textbook political theory style, are t rying to turn them into strengths. For e xample, the lack of political experience and understanding of current issues, domination of the family, the perception of Chiranjeevi as a “sensitive” person un suited to the rough and tumble of contemporary politics, lack of a political organisation at the grass roots level, the existing identities of his political opponents (Y S Rajashekar Reddy as a strong pro-farmer leader with charisma and following of his own; Chandra babu Naidu as a modern, progressive leader and inheritor of NTR as the keeper of Telugu pride), and polarisation of anti-Kapu castes against him. Chiranjeevi used the well attended press conference on August 17 to counter these perceptions. For example, on the question of sensitivity, he said “sensitivity” was something missing in current p oliticians and would actually help him in empathising with the people better. Chiranjeevi and team have studiously avoided any public display of caste affiliation lest it antagonise the sympathisers and neutral voters among the other castes.

Further, the actor has undertaken a couple of whirlwind tours to meet the families of handloom weavers in Siricilla in Karimnagar district to understand their problems. He also visited Pallepalli in M ahabubnagar to meet the people of that village whose land is scheduled to go to a special economic zone (SEZ) coming up there. These tours were touted as precursors to a longer “yatra” by the actor across the state later.

Good vs Evil, Hero vs Villain

Chiranjeevi has been careful to avoid all forms of aggressive postures against his political opponents and criticism of their policies. Chiranjeevi’s team seems to be banking on appealing to the middle-class and the increasing number of urban voters and youth who have no strong political affiliations or ideologies except to deride the existing political class and yearn for “change”. Chiranjeevi has taken a neutral stand and avoided all criticism of YSR, Chandrababu Naidu and their policies. Praising them for doing a good job and saying that he will ensure that the fruits of development reached everyone.

When Chiranjeevi was asked to name his opponent/enemy he refused to name any person or party preferring to state that poverty was his “enemy/opponent”. Further, Chiranjeevi and his team have categorically refused to be drawn into a verbal duel with their political opponents through the media. In fact, leaders and fans of Chiranjeevi went to the house of a Congress leader who had criticised him and presented him with roses as a gesture of friendship.

The upper, middle and elite classes as well as the mass of Indian people find the appeal of a battle between good and evil, the haves and have-nots, hero and villain difficult to resist. NTR had demonstrated this when he successfully portrayed the Congress and its leaders as “villains”. To take an analogy from the film world more often than not a movie without a “villain” will make a good documentary widely a cclaimed by the critics and jurors of awards but will rarely succeed at the box office. Chiranjeevi needs to play to the gallery to win the audience over by l eading a fight against the current evils in society (corruption, social injustice, price rise, farmer suicides, etc) and project the c urrent leaders as the personification of that evil as well as the root cause for the ills of society. His inability to take strong positions and his vague and non-committal r esponse to crucial issues like SEZs the demand for Telangana, scheduled caste and scheduled tribe categorisation, etc, tell us that the homework done by the a ctor and his team was at a very superficial level. But they are not to be blamed entirely for not taking a stance so early in the game with the existing major parties like the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party still dithering on these i ssues. While there is no doubt that the p olitical entry of Chiranjeevi will radically transform the politics of the state, the role of the major incumbent parties, their strengths, caste polarisation and alliances could throw up interesting results in the 2009 elections.

october 11, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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