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February 9, 1998


A star is born

J Sesha Sai in Kakinada

As the bus zips into dusty Pitapuram, on the periphery of Kakinada, a torrent of sawdust assails one's nose, throwing up ample signals of what lies in store. It is dusk by the time the bus reaches Kakinada, when the city's dazzling lights dance as if they have been inspired by the star from Tollywood. 'Rebel star' Uppalapati Krishnam Raju is contesting on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket here.

Though the villain-turned-hero did his college education in Kakinada, he is considered a non-local. He hails from Narasapur, located about 200 km away from this port town.

Sandwiched between Rajahmundry and Vijaywada, Narasapur made the six-foot-plus ageing star eat humble pie in 1991, when he contested on a Congress ticket at the height of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination sympathy wave. His colleagues from the film world -- Jamuna from Rajahmundry and Krishna from Eluru -- had romped home, rubbing salt into his wounds.

And Krishnam Raju had virtually bid goodbye to politics. He was unwilling to contest the poll this time, but the BJP stepped up its persuasion. He agree to campaign for the party. "But, sorry, no contest," he told them, forcing the saffron brigade to nominate yesteryear's star Jayashri as its Kakinada candidate. When the party giants stepped in, the star finally yielded to the temptation of a political career.

But he was still sceptical -- till a few days ago, that is. "Till last week, he was not sure of his chances. And so the money eluded the saffron political scene," said a BJP official in the district.

Asked if this was true, another BJP leader, P Dorababu, who was himself in the race for a ticket after crossing over from the N T Rama Rao-Telugu Desam Party recently, told Rediff On The NeT, "We are sure of our chances. There is no need to waste money."

Even after Sonia Gandhi addressed a massive political meeting in Kakinada? "Sonia has succeeded only in inspiring the party cadres," the star told this correspondent.

An old rickshaw-puller endorsed the view. "I will vote only for Kamalam (aka the lotus, the BJP's symbol)."

The old man, with his bony frame and greying hair, speaks volumes of the town which has a population of about 600,000. It has just three big industrial units -- Nagarjuna Fertilisers Ltd, Godavari Fertilisers Ltd, Spectrum Power Projects. The third biggest establishment is a transport company, Sri Ramadas Transport Company which has been around for ages. "Only two local companies -- SRMI and another textile firm -- are in a position to offer decent jobs, even though they pay peanuts," said Balaram who runs a small shop in the busy Banugudi centre.

Small wonder that even a farmer's son, living near Pitapuram, dreams of making a lucrative software career in the US while struggling for his bread in Hyderabad, about 700 km away.

The only other sign of Kakinada's 'prosperity' is its nearly two-dozen cinema theatres. Interestingly, one of the main arteries of the city is called 'Cinema Road' -- and not without reason. It has 14 cinema theatres, including the one starring Krishnam Raju's Maa Nanna Ku Pelli (My daddy's marriage), a roaring hit which is going strong even 60 days after its release.

Asked if the BJP was gaining momentum because of the film, an employee at the local telephone exchange said, "Everyone wants to vote for the BJP because of its prime ministerial nominee Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is a spotless leader. Moreover, we are vexed with experiments like the United Front. What can these leaders do for the people if they are busy scratching each other's backs?"

Asked if the BJP has a good chance, a old man blurted out, "Jayaprada was here just the other day. She attracted even more crowds. So don't go by what is on the people's lips. No one can find out what is in their heart. Wait for the voting day, and you see... Moreover, the BJP will raze mosques, and will start attacking us with swords."

A tough battle lies ahead, with the other two parties -- the ruling Telugu Desam which has renominated sitting MP Thota Gopalakrishna and the Congress which has fielded Mangapati Pallamraju, an ex-MP from the constituency -- too leaving no stone unturned.

"How much is the BJP willing to spend? Nothing, if you compare it with the Telugu Desam. The election day will witness a heavy downpour of currency notes," said a local journalist who works for a leading television channel.

TDP president and Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu has stepped up his campaign in the region, already touring the area twice. Visiting even the remotest villages, he has been demanding that the people should compensate him for the long working hours -- 18 hours a day -- which he has been putting in.

"Where is the need to work for so long? He works long for his own benefit, and does not spare even an hour for the people," says Krishnam Raju, addressing a meeting from an improvised platform on his rickety jeep which has been taking him to villages in the constituency. A shower of flowers and garlands has been greeting him wherever he goes.

"Chandrababu Naidu is worse than Nero. When cotton growers are committing suicide and when the Janmabhoomi programme -- involving development work like widening roads with people's participation -- lead to the razing of millions of houses, he is having a great time, playing his flute,' said Krishnam Raju at Sampara village, near Kakinada. A thunder of applause breaks out, punctuated by whistles.

A state transport bus driver, Satyanarayana echoed similar views. "If the farmers have a harrowing time because of the pest which is ruining their crops, Naidu is devouring the nation's vitals. But the people are smart. Gone are the days when they would go on strikes and agitations. They will show him his place when the time comes."

As if to cash in on these sentiments, the star made a vehement appeal. "If you don't want elections again, vote for the BJP. Vote for a spotless leader like Vajpayee. Bless me with your votes," said Krishnam Raju, whose whirlwind tour of villages has been testing his patience, thanks to the verbal jousts among the party functionaries, urging him to take a detour to their village.

"I am not answerable to you. You are not answerable to me. Why can't you behave yourself when the crowd is so calm?" the star is furious.

Accompanying the star in his jeep is former minister and well-known Kapu leader Mudragada Padmanabham who joined the BJP recently after the Congress denied him a ticket.

Following the assurance given by the Congress leadership, Padmanabham had filed his nomination as a Congress candidate from Kakinada and started his campaign. Then came the bolt from the blue: the party nominated Pallamraju. A furious Padmanabham joined the BJP in Vajpayee's presence at Visakhapatnam recently.

He is now asking the people to vote for the BJP, evoking an angry reaction from a farmer.

"Just the other day he asked us to vote for the Congress. Is he mad?"

Despite such reactions, the saffron brigade is making rapid strides in the constituency, much to the dismay of the Telugu Desam and the Congress.

Villagers no longer show you their hand, when you ask who they would vote. No, not even the cycle (the TDP symbol), but the lotus. It seems to be blooming now. But no one is sure whether it will blossom fully in Kakinada. If that happens, the saffron brigade -- the party is equally optimistic of the neighbouring Rajahmundry and Amalapuram constituencies -- will make it debut in coastal Andhra.

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