In March 2014, Pawan Kalyan, one of Telugu cinema’s biggest stars and the youngest brother of actor-turned-politician Chiranjeevi, took the plunge into politics by establishing the Jana Sena Party (JSP). He made a grand entry with a thrilling speech on 14 March at the party’s inauguration in a convention centre in Hyderabad. But he arrives at a time when Andhra Pradesh—which votes as one state but will have two assemblies with the formation of Telangana on 2 June—more than most other parts of India, is witnessing a stampede of celebrities in politics. With the exception of Venkatesh, all the major male stars of the industry, who have hundreds of thousands of fans’ associations among them, are either campaigning themselves, endorsing individual candidates or expected to campaign. Kalyan’s brother Chiranjeevi leads the Congress campaign. Nandamuri Balakrishna, who had limited his role to campaigning in the past, is now contesting for the assembly on a Telugu Desam Party ticket. Mahesh Babu is endorsing a TDP contestant. Akkineni Nagarjuna met Narendra Modi and fuelled speculations that he is all set to campaign for BJP.
On the face of it, this degree of enthusiasm by stars and political parties for each other is counterintuitive. Indeed, with the exception of NT Rama Rao, whose party swept the Congress (I) out of power in January 1983, no other film star has had a lasting political career of any significance in Andhra Pradesh. In 2009, the Telugu industry’s biggest star Chiranjeevi founded the Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) and won just eighteen assembly and none in the parliament—faring worse than had been predicted by the least favourable opinion poll. Chiranjeevi himself lost one of the two assembly seats he contested. (It is another story that he remained in the limelight by merging his party with the Congress and becoming a minister at the centre.) What difference, then, can a Pawan Kalyan hope to make?
Like NTR and Chiranjeevi, who established their own parties, Kalyan, too, set himself up as a one-man political institution. His primary asset is his inexperience: it frees him from the accretions of crimes of omission and commission that weigh down an established party. The star-politician’s success and relevance for politics is not primarily about electoral success, but about presenting hope. A good example is the long-lasting importance of the Kannada superstar Rajkumar, who refused to contest elections but was nevertheless seen as the spokesperson of the Kannada people. Even state chief ministers acknowledged his importance by making much-publicised visits to him.