How Power Star Pawan Kalyan Lost Before He Began Playing

Pawan Kalyan made his entry into politics with a thrilling speech at the inauguration of his Jana Sena Party in March this year. NOAH SEELAM / AFP / Getty Images
02 May, 2014

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.

Similarly, NTR and Chiranjeevi—and even MG Ramachandran—were initially perceived as outsiders to the cynical political establishment. Chiranjeevi’s failure, then, does not lie in the poor showing of his party in 2009 alone but, perhaps more importantly, in his inability to retain his mandate as the agent of change and embodiment of hope. This script of disappointment was actually written in NTR’s time. The ageing superstar won a massive victory in the 1985 mid-term poll, bettering his impressive 1983 performance—but soon afterwards, the state witnessed serial anti-government protests that continued throughout his term and, eventually, resulted in his defeat in the 1989 election.

Pawan Kalyan arrived on the scene with great potential. His strategy of harnessing public anger against the political establishment was brilliant and also fit well with his screen image of the arrogant, defiant hero, which he played in a number of films, from Badri (2000) to Cameraman Gangatho Rambabu (2012). His decision not to contest or field candidates during this election came across as a commitment to change, a refusal to hanker after short-term gains. Unlike Chiranjeevi, Kalyan is endowed with excellent oratory skills. His speech at the launch of his party was truly impressive. Among other things, he declared that he couldn’t care less for the support of the leaders of his own Kapu caste—they had apparently warned that they would not support him if he launched a party. In a nod to the classic model of the super-citizen who transcends caste and religious identities and thereby earns the ability to represent diverse peoples, he added: “I have no caste. No religion. I am an Indian.”

And then, the anti-climax. Not in the form of the tired slogan: “Congress Hatao, Desh Bachao,” which was his closing line at the inauguration, but in his endorsement of Narendra Modi as prime ministerial candidate only days after the party’s launch. Regardless of Modi’s virtues, this move commits Kalyan to an alliance with the BJP—and also the TDP, which has returned to the NDA after two general elections—in the near future, even as the JSP struggles to define its agendas and identify its constituencies. He now comes across as a leader who is not even trying to change the rules of the game but merely playing along. The candidate and formations that he ended up endorsing carry their own distinctive and heavy historical baggage. Worse still, this move seriously undermines Kalyan’s claim that he is everybody’s man. Whatever may be said in Modi’s favour, his capacity to represent constituencies cutting across religious differences is limited, to put it mildly.

Instead, Kalyan could and should have supported a chosen few candidates cutting across parties, regions and states. Telugus are spread across several states beyond Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In a clear recognition of this fact, both Kalyan and Chiranjeevi toured Karnataka in April. Cinema being the one thing that Telugus today have in common, Kalyan—at the peak of his popularity after the success of his 2013 blockbuster Attarintiki Daredi?—was uniquely placed to appeal to a de-territorialised Telugu identity, detached from the political geography of what was once Andhra Pradesh. The timing of such a move could not have been better because bifurcation has effectively rendered the problematic independence-era conceptions of the Telugu people as residents of a single state or territory completely redundant. Who knows? Others—those who don’t speak Telugu—too might have been willing to listen to new voices like Pawan Kalyan’s.

And so, even before the 2014 elections are over Pawan Kalyan’s party has conceded a kind of defeat, without fielding a single candidate. The tragedy of the politics of promise is that our heroes never win. Those entrusted with the task of nurturing our hopes end up disappointing us. Far worse than an electoral defeat is losing the mandate to do something else and to do it differently.

SV Srinivas is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore. He is the author of two books on the star-politicians of south India: Megastar (2009) and Politics as Performance (2013).