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February 9, 1998


'Lady Amitabh' plays a double role in politics, too

J Sesha Sai in Nellore

Vijayashanti Nellore seems to be coasting along on its past glory. Gone are the legendary Nellore Molakoluku rice which, when cooked, could give the blooming jasmines an inferiority complex. In their place, you have hybridised monsters which are still popular because 'people taste images, not products'.

Gone is the era of Nellorites's domination -- it has contributed two chief ministers, the late Bezwada Gopala Reddy and Nedurumalli Janardhan Reddy -- in the political arena. Janardhan Reddy has chosen to contest from Bapatla -- about 150 km away, on the Vijayawada line -- where his Christian community dominates politics.

Gone are the aqua farms which, after making several people millionaires overnight, had turned them bankrupt as a virus ravaged the projects. The Supreme Court, too, had come down heavily on the farms for violating the Coastal Zone Regulation rules which disallows any construction or development work along the coast.

But one saving grace is that it is the hometown of well-known playback singer S P Balasubramaniam who still keeps his contacts alive. His mother lives in this 200-year-old town's Tipparajuvari Veedi.

Used to the presence -- or rather just memories of such giants -- Nellore seemed to reel under shocking indifference as the lotus brigade built up decibel levels about superstar Vijayshanti's first major public meeting -- in support of the Bharatiya Janata Party -- in Andhra Pradesh.

"What if she is coming?" said rickshaw-puller Ramu. "Haven't we been seeing her in the movies? Why should I go?"

Several such views -- "I am not interested in politics," "Who has the time?" -- follow in rapid fire, making you wonder if the dusty town is overpowered by the feeling that it is an orphan.

The shocking state -- in a town whose citizens are as well known for their pragmatism as for their dynamism -- has been brought about by all political parties.

The Telugu Desam has left the reserved (scheduled caste) seat to its ally, the Communist Party of India-Marxist. The Left party has fielded a new face, Buduru Swarnalatha. So has the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose candidate K Balakondiah is a former deputy inspector general of police. And the Congress has renominated sitting MP, Panabaka Laksmi.

If the BJP and the CPI-M face the charge of fielding unknown candidates, the Congress has been caught napping as several stalwarts have steered clear of the campaign arena. Janardhan Reddy is busy with his own canvassing in Bapatla, district Congress president Anam Sanjiva Reddy has just jumped on to the TDP bandwagon and municipal chairman A Vivekanand Reddy is keeping indifferent health.

Are these not reasons enough to feel left out? But the BJP is equally indifferent to Nellore's startling apathy to the electioneering.

The party let loose nearly a dozen loudspeaker-wielding autorickshaws into the chaotic traffic. Unable to find exclusive routes to spread the 'Vijayshanti is coming' message, the vehicles started competing with each other, creating cacophony and building up the people's resistance.

The evening showed how devastating the mutually-destructive propaganda warfare was. Trucks and buses -- even those not fully loaded with people -- started streaming into the venue.

Truck-loads even for the 'lady superstar', and that too at her first major meeting in the state? Ironically, the Telugu heroine had launched her campaign in neighbouring Tamil Nadu!

"Hardly 100 to 200 would have come on their own," police inspector Hasanaiah was rather pessimistic. But it shows how hard 'lady Amitabh' has to work if she has to win over the people of the region.

But the BJP is working harder -- at least in hijacking what is grist to its vote-grabbing mill. Fluttering beside the party flag was the TDP's yellow flag, featuring a lion and the late Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao. He is now the saffron mascot! NTR must be turning in his grave, cursing himself for flirting with the saffron brigade at the beginning of his political career in 1983.

Equally pathetic seems to be the plight of the Leftists whose tribal tunes -- the BJP will definitely claim they have come from Vijayashanti's hit film Ose Ramulamma -- are now spreading the saffron message!

"Are they trying to secularise their fundamentalism as they are fighting an election in this reserved constituency?" ardent NTR fan Diwakar blurts out, getting impatient for 'Ramulamma's' arrival at the Venkatagiri Raja college ground. Others were equally desperate for the glamorous glimpse. So much so that anybody and everybody in a sari near the podium created a flutter.

And came the star's motorcade, piercing the crowd. "Are they trying to run over the crowd?" asks a local journalist in the media enclosure as the BJP leader's announcements spark a virtual stampede. The crowd resorts to intense jostling to clear the path for the star's vehicles. "Could not the 'most disciplined party' make better arrangements, considering that the venue had another gate which could have become the VIP gate, causing no inconvenience to the crowd?" one thinks aloud.

She arrives on the stage in a green Mysore silk sari, waves violently to the crowd, sports a broad smile, walking from one end of the podium to the other. The crowd is overjoyed. A couple of 'thumbs up' later, she settles down till Dalit leader and BJP vice-president Bangaru Laxman finishes his speech.

"My fans," she screams. Thunderous applause and whistles break out. "All my people," another scream into the microphone. The crowd goes ecstatic. Then spontaneous thoughts, loaded with a lot of drama but with little substance, roll out of her lovely frame. Then, adjusting her pallu, she pulls out a couple of sheets of paper, and begins reading them. Gone is the drama. Gone is the rhetoric. And you are now facing a grown-up school girl in her 'reading class'.

"If the BJP doesn't deliver what it has promised,' she reads out casually. And the realisation hits her. 'More drama, more action,' the subconscious seems to scream. "I will never address another public meeting for the BJP, seeking your votes," goes out the line which would have made NTR doubt his overacting abilities. Echoes of clapping reverberate across the small ground.

Then the star zooms away, making you wonder where she was staying. For, the best hotel in town was not decent enough.

No BJP official was willing to part with the secret. And then, a tactless party worker lets the cat out of the bag unwittingly. "Where is the Magunta guest house?" he asks in this reporter's presence as a local BJP leader squirms in discomfort. "I will tell you, I will tell you," the local mumbles.

He did not have to. The whole town knows where the Maguntas -- the late liquor baron and industrialist Magunta Subbarami Reddy represented Ongole and his brother Srinivasul is now contesting from the constituency -- live. Yes, the star and her husband Srinivas Rao are the Maguntas's guests.

The irony is that the Maguntas are staunch Congressmen. Blasting the 'Congress enemy' during the day, joining him at their place for dinner diplomacy without batting an eyelid? 'Budding saffron giant' Vijayshanti is learning the tricks of the trade quite fast! Is that why the BJP is so sure of providing stability?

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