Film stars with huge fan bases are known to have a yen for politics. A ready-made support structure in the form of fan clubs and the visibility guaranteed by superstardom have helped actors such as M.G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh make the grade as politicians. Telugu actor Chiranjeevi, who launched Praja Rajyam — a cleverly named State political party intimating populism — starts with the same initial advantages that MGR and NTR had: immense popularity, a clean image, and considerable resources. MGR had a long history of political activities before launching his own party, the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in 1972; and NTR, although a political novitiate when he launched Telugu Desam in 1982, succeeded in filling a perceived vacuum by championing regional pride and highlighting key democratic issues. Chiranjeevi is a newcomer to politics; but unlike NTR, who made a mark in a bipolar system and needed to deal with only one strong rival, the Congress, he will have to jostle for political space with both the Congress and the Telugu Desam. NTR’s political career began in fairly low key and gathered force over a period through a State-wide tour. In the age of mass television, Chiranjeevi has chosen to make a big splash in the shortest possible time.
However, sustained success in politics will depend on policies and programmes that relate to the livelihood concerns of large sections of the people. Going by his address to supporters at the massive rally in Tirupati, Chiranjeevi promises change with an orientation to the poor and the downtrodden, typical MGR constituencies. He touched on key issues — from Telangana and naxalism to the agrarian crisis and industrialisation — and promised a “scientific assessment” of sensitive subjects. There was neither grandstanding nor aggression towards political opponents. The message the superstar sought to convey was that he intends to capitalise on his own strengths rather than on the failures of his primary rivals, Congress Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy and Telugu Desam president N. Chandrababu Naidu. Other than references to fighting political corruption “at the top” and in major irrigation projects, he made no effort to frontally take on the Congress regime. In keeping with the personality-cult base of his party, Chiranjeevi ensured that the focus during the press conference that preceded the launch was on his persona — and also that the launch witnessed no other leader on stage. The new party will no doubt gain significantly from his superstardom, but it must grow quickly beyond the personality cult to bring about meaningful socio-political change in south India’s most populous State.
6 months ago