Pawan Kalyan’s star has risen, but no one knows what to make of his mercurial politics

Actor turned politician Pawan Kalyan at a Jana Sena rally in 2022. With a meandering ideology that switches issues every five years, Kalyan remains a question mark hanging over the fate of Andhra Pradesh’s politics. COURTESY JANASENA PARTY
Elections 2024
15 May, 2024

As Pawan Kalyan walked out of the Rajamahendravaram Central Prison, on 14 September 2023, flanked on either side by the Telugu Desam Party general secretary, Nara Lokesh, and the actor-turned-legislator Nandamuri Balakrishna, he set the tone for an election battle that was still eight months away. Kalyan—a Telugu actor who goes by the moniker “Power Star” and founding president of the Jana Sena Party—had just met the former chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu, who had been arrested on corruption charges a few days earlier. Naidu, the TDP president, had once been at odds with Kalyan, but the actor rallied around him, calling his arrest a political vendetta by the ruling Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party. Kalyan told the crowd that had gathered outside the prison that the YSRCP’s “atrocities” could be checked only if the opposition remained united, so that “the anti-incumbency vote is not divided.”

Kalyan’s announcement breathed new life into the TDP, which seemed to be in terminal decline after only winning 23 out of Andhra Pradesh’s 175 assembly seats, and only three of its 25 Lok Sabha seats, in 2019. With a septuagenarian president and an absence of a credible secondary leadership—Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh has struggled to find public validation—the TDP needed the power star’s star power more than he needed it. The JSP was also an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, with which the TDP had a messy split in 2018 that it desperately wanted to reverse. Kalyan was instrumental in forging a three-party alliance to take on the YSRCP and ensuring that the elections remained a closely fought battle.

Kalyan does not have any political achievements to date. The JSP was founded shortly before the 2014 elections, which it did not contest. Five years later, it won just one of the 137 assembly seats where it put up candidates—Kalyan lost both seats he contested—with a vote share of just over five percent. This time, the JSP nominated 21 assembly candidates and is running in two Lok Sabha constituencies. Nevertheless, with his visibility overshadowing that of Naidu, a surging enthusiasm among his party cadre and the YSRCP mobilising its entire machinery to ensure that he loses again, Kalyan has emerged as the most discussed figure in the state, a “man of the match,” as one analyst put it, irrespective of the outcome. A close study of Kalyan’s political career, teeming with inconsistencies of ideology and praxis, does little to help understand what he will bring to the future of the state’s politics, whether as a shareholder in power or as an ultimately unsuccessful alliance-builder.