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Will Pawan Kalyan Be Washed Away In Andhra Politics?

By Aditi Phadnis
August 24, 2023 09:59 IST
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Many often stereotype Andhra Pradesh politics as being star-struck, but as Pawan Kalyan's political journey shows, stars are turning out to be a passing cloud.

IMAGE: Jana Sena Party chief Pawan Kalyan. Photograph: ANI Photo

In Gabbar Singh (2012), one of Telugu actor-politician Pawan Kalyan's super-hit films, the baddie asks him a rhetorical question: 'Do you know how popular I am around here?'

'Popularity emundhile passing cloud lantidhi, vathavaranam vedikkithe vanai karigipothundhi, nenu akasam lanti vadini vurumochina, merupochina, pidugochina nenu epudu okela unta (Popularity is like a passing cloud. When the weather gets hot, it dissolves and vanishes. I am like the sky: Come what may -- thunder, lightning, rain -- I remain the same), says Pawan Kalyan, nonchalantly, proceeding, a few frames later, to pulverise his opponent amid hoots, whistles, clapping, and shrieks in the cinema hall.

The film grossed Rs 150 crore (Rs 1.5 billion) worldwide, becoming one of the highest-earning Telugu films in history.

But that was cinema. In politics, Pawan Kalyan's movies haven't done so well.

He launched his political outfit, the Jana Sena Party (JSP), in 2014.

His brother, actor Chiranjeevi, may have been his inspiration: Chiranjeevi founded the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) in 2008, and went on to win 18 seats and an impressive 18 per cent vote share, despite having had little time to develop a grassroots cadre, and for campaigning.

But although the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance gave him ministership in the Union government, he showed a lack of staying power and merged the PRP with the Congress in 2011.

IMAGE: Pawan Kalyan at the Jana Sena Party's Varahi Vijaya Yatra in Visakhapatnam, August 11, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

They belong to a caste called Kapu. In coastal Andhra Pradesh, this is a politically influential grouping, and in politics that is dominated by the powerful and landowning Kamma and the equally powerful and wealthy Reddy castes, the Kapus have felt ignored.

They are aspirational and financially secure (some of the wealthiest film producers and actors like Dasari Narayana Rao and Allu Arjun are Kapus, indicating not just landed wealth but also access to capital).

But in politics, they've always been number two -- Andhra Pradesh has never had a Kapu chief minister, only deputy chief ministers.

This, despite the fact that in the 2009 assembly elections, 19 MLAs were from the Kapu community, going up to 24 in 2019, next only to the Reddys and more than the Kammas.

Together, these three upper castes accounted for nearly two-thirds of the unreserved seats in the 175-member assembly.

It is this arithmetic that appears to have dictated the JSP's politics.

Pawan Kalyan supported the BJP-Telugu Desam Party (which was the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA) alliance in 2014, possibly on the premise that if the Kammas and Kapus joined together they could break the Reddy hegemony.

But he broke from the alliance after the Telugu Desam Party walked out of the NDA on the issue of special status to Andhra Pradesh.

He tied up with the Left parties and the Bahujan Samaj Party in 2019 with disastrous results: He himself contested from two seats and lost both.

His party, which fought 137 seats, lost its deposit in 121 and managed to win just one. Nor was the vote share especially impressive: Just 5.5 per cent.

IMAGE: Union Home Minister Amit Shah meets Jana Sena Party President Pawan Kalyan, in New Delhi, July 20, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

It was a setback by any standards. For some time, little was heard of the JSP: Until it became the only party from Telangana-Andhra Pradesh (which contributes 42 Lok Sabha seats) to be invited to the NDA meeting last month.

For months now, Pawan Kalyan has been saying publicly that the BJP, TDP and JSP together can prove worthy challengers to the ruling Jaganmohan Reddy-led YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh: But this theory has found little traction in the BJP for reasons of its own.

The BJP has little capital of its own in Andhra Pradesh. It recently announced a new head of the state unit -- D Purandeswari, who joined the BJP from the Congress a few years ago and belongs to the TDP lineage, being N Chandrababu Naidu's sister-in-law.

But it took her nearly 48 hours to react to her appointment, which, her opponents say, is testimony to her lack of enthusiasm for her new job.

She is a Kamma and the BJP's best-case scenario is that she might be able to wean the caste away from the TDP.

But just to illustrate the BJP's own strength: In the 2019 assembly election, it got 0.84 per cent of the vote, less than the Congress's 1.17 per cent. Neither of the parties got a seat.

Despite a recent meeting with Union Home Minister Amit A Shah and pressure from Pawan Kalyan, the BJP has elected to let the TDP stay in the Opposition field.

It is standing equidistant from the TDP and the YSR Congress, presumably signalling its intention of being able to do business with either in the state.

IMAGE: Pawan Kalyan addresses the Jana Sena Party's Varahi Vijaya Yatra in Visakhapatnam, August 11, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

The one who might find he has landed with a thud between two chairs is Pawan Kalyan.

Jaganmohan Reddy told a delegation of Muslims recently that his party will not support the Uniform Civil Code.

It has noted the TDP is out of the NDA. And it is not bothered about Pawan Kalyan.

Many make the mistake of stereotyping Andhra Pradesh politics as being star-struck.

After N T Rama Rao's Telugu Desam launch in the early 1980s, Chiranjeevi is the only other star to have had political success, also moderate.

Come 2024, instead of the sky that he aspired to be in his movie, Pawan Kalyan may find that he is the cloud that got washed away, along with the dream of Kapu leadership.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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Aditi Phadnis
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