Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chiranjeevi The Last Word Andhra’s White Knight

The Last Word
Andhra’s White Knight
Megastar-turned-politician Chiranjeevi plays a saviour for the distressed Congress but doubts remain about his ability to emerge as a rallying point
Suresh Dharur
On screen he is a hero, whose action thrillers had earned him innumerable fans. He has rescued several damsels in distress on celluloid, but coming to the rescue of a political party was a new one for Chiranjeevi. The Telugu superstar, whose career spans three decades, was a godsend for the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh as it faced the prospect of destabilisation from the rebel camp led by YS Jagan Mohan Reddy.
The ageing matinee idol sealed a deal with 10, Janpath, and merged his 30-month-old Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) with the Congress party recently. The merger marks a turning point in the state politics and may well signal a realignment of political forces. It comes at a time when the government is shaky, amidst growing fears that the Jagan camp may attempt to dislodge it. The Congress has 155 MLAs in the 294-member House, just seven more than the half-way mark. It is estimated that about 25 legislators are backing Jagan Reddy.
The entry of the megastar into its fold has provided the much-needed oxygen for the ruling party. With its tally of 18 MLAs, the PRP’s support becomes crucial for survival of the Kiran Reddy government in case of a split in the Congress. It also comes in handy for the Congress in the event of a showdown with its leaders from Telangana, who have been threatening to quit their posts if the Centre fails to grant statehood for the region.
Dark and handsome, 55-year-old Chiru, as he is referred to in film circles, is a mass hero in the mould of the late N T Rama Rao and his image is one of a do-gooder, kind-hearted and a loving family man. When he took the plunge into politics in August 2008, promising “social justice and change”, many hoped that he might repeat the magic of NTR, the demigod of the tinsel world, and emerge as an alternative to the two main contenders for power --- the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party.
Despite his clean image and hugely successful road shows, Chiranjeevi failed to convert his star power into votes and his party virtually bombed at the electoral box office, drawing a blank in the Lok Sabha while managing to win just 18 seats in the 294-member Assembly. Since then, it has been a bumpy political journey for the megastar in the face of desertions and steady erosion of the support base.
From a nondescript village in the coastal Andhra to stardom in the tinsel world and then to the centrestage of politics, the rise of Chiranjeevi could be the story of one of his films. Born on August 22, 1955, in Mogalturu, a remote village in the coastal district of West Godavari, Chiranjeevi’s original name was Konidela Siva Shankara Varaprasad.
The eldest of three sons of a constable in the excise department, he moved to Chennai after graduation to seek a career in the film industry and joined a film institute in 1977. His success in Tollywood, traditionally dominated by a handful of powerful families, was particularly sweet as he had no family connection in the industry and his rise was attributed to his grit, determination and hard work.
Chiranjeevi rose to fame with his first big hit Khaidi in 1983, a film that gave him the image of an action hero. He churned out a string of blockbusters in the 1980s, including Challenge, Abhilasha , Rakshasudu and Pasivadi Pranam. Moving beyond his action hero image, Chiru donned a wide range of roles in the 1990s with loaded political messages like Hitler, Indra, Annayya and Stalin.
At the peak of his career, he was among the highest paid actors in the country and has a massive following, particularly among the youth. He married Surekha, daughter of popular yesteryear comedian Allu Ramalingayya, in 1980. Chiranjeevi professes “social justice” as his political philosophy, but he opposed his teenage daughter Srija’s inter-caste marriage. When his daughter eloped with her lover and married him in a secret Arya Samaj ceremony in August 2007, Chiranjeevi did nothing to reach out to her. It is said that he has not invited the couple home till date.
Chiranjeevi’s plunge into politics was driven more by his popularity as an actor than by any ideological vigour. “He is a prisoner of his own screen image. The core of his personality is one of a gullible and sensitive small town boy, struggling to come to terms with the demands of a ruthless world dominated by money, fame and public image,” says producer-director T Bharadwaj.
His brother-in-law and noted film producer Allu Aravind is widely seen as the brain behind his political moves, having played a key role in the formation of the PRP and then its merger with the Congress. After being relieved of the burden of running an incoherent party organisation, Chiranjeevi now hopes to emerge as a main vote-catcher in the Congress with the help of his star appeal. “We are confident that he will definitely establish himself and the Congress will entrust responsibility to him to lead the party in the 2014 elections,” said senior PRP leader K Vidyadhar Rao.
Chiranjeevi is likely to be inducted into the Union Cabinet through the Rajya Sabha route while four ministerial berths would be given to his legislators in Andhra Pradesh. By aggressively wooing Chiranjeevi into its fold, the Congress has sent out a message that the creation of a separate Telangana state was not on its radar. The PRP has been opposing the bifurcation of the state as a major chunk of its 16 per cent vote share in the previous elections came from the coastal Andhra region.
Congress leaders perceive twin advantages in the new relationship. First, Chiranjeevi can bring in the much-needed glamour to the party in the wake of a vacuum created by the death of the charismatic leader YS Rajasekhar Reddy. Second, the move can help neutralise Jagan, Rajasekhar Reddy’s politically ambitious son.
While Jagan chose to ignore PRP’s merger with the Congress, the TDP dubbed it as an “unholy alliance”. “Chiranjeevi spoke about social justice but he ended up securing justice for himself,” TDP Chief N Chandrababu Naidu remarked. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), fighting for a separate state, hopes to turn the development to its advantage. “If the Congress wants to give Telangana, one hurdle has gone. The only party propagating a united Andhra Pradesh has gone now,” said TRS leader K Chandrasekhara Rao.
The PRP had bagged 16 per cent vote share in its maiden electoral battle in 2009, most of it contributed by the coastal Andhra region from where Chiranjeevi hails. The numerically strong “Kapu” community is seen as the main support base of his party. “He may be a popular and mass hero but he could not evolve as a politician. There was no option for him other than winding up his party since a majority of his legislators were seen hobnobbing with the Congress,” said Dr P Prabhakar, a one-time close confidante of the actor.
On his part, Chiranjeevi is also aware of his political limitations and needs the Congress platform to further his career. In the absence of a mass leader in the Congress, he even has a chance of being projected as chief ministerial candidate in the 2014 elections. Chiranjeevi can work his way up the ladder in the Congress if he plays his cards well and adjusts himself to the footwork that the Congress culture demands.
A popular SMS joke that did the rounds after Chiranjeevi merged his party with the Congress read: “Did the hero in the first half of the movie turn into a side-kick in the second half?” That is an image that the actor-turned-politician would have to fight off as the battle for political power in Andhra Pradesh hots up.