For three decades since making his movie debut in 1977, Chiranjeevi has dominated Tollywood, as the Telugu movie industry is known, like few other actors have before and since. As the leader of Praja Rajyam Party (PRP), which he launched last year, Chiranjeevi is now trying to parlay his on-screen success into political power in Andhra Pradesh.
The largest state in southern India finishes voting on Thursday in simultaneous elections to both the 294-member state assembly and the Lok Sabha, to which it sends 42 representatives.
The 53-year-old actor is trying to replicate the success of late actor-turned-politician N.T. Rama Rao, whose Telugu Desam Party (TDP) swept to power in 1983, just nine months after its launch. NTR, as the actor was known, ended the Congress party’s political monopoly in the state by cashing in on his screen charisma, powerful oratory and appeal to Telugu pride.
There’s no doubting Chiranjeevi’s star power and that he is a potent third political force, but whether that’s enough to triumph over both the Congress and the TDP will be known only after the votes are counted. For 25 years, elections in Andhra Pradesh have been straight contests between Congress- and TDP-led political formations.
"Unlike in 1983, when the opposition space was vacant and it was relatively easy for NTR, Chiranjeevi might find the going tough," says Chinnaya Suri, who teaches political science at the University of Hyderabad.
Still, Chiranjeevi, known as "megastar" in Andhra Pradesh, built up a huge fan base with a string of box-office smashes in the 1990s. Film magazine Filmfare once dubbed him "Bigger than Bachchan", a reference to Bollywood’s Amitabh Bachchan.
And Chiranjeevi has some things in his favour. He belongs to the numerically strong, but politically marginalized Kapu community. The predominantly agrarian Kapus constitute 19% of the state’s 80 million population, but never has a Kapu become chief minister.
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The Reddys and Kammas (who use the surnames Naidu and Rao) are the dominant land- and business-owning castes in the state. Traditionally, the Reddys, who make up 10% of the state’s population, have backed the Congress and Kammas, who constitute 5% of the population, the TDP.
"Reddys and Kammas have always punched (with a) political weight way beyond their numbers because of their economic status," says C, Ramachandraiah, a professor at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad.
"If Chiranjeevi can consolidate his own Kapus and other backward castes, he has a good chance of emerging at least as a decider who can tilt the scales in favour of either of the combines," he added.
In districts such as East and West Godavari, Krishna, Prakasam and Guntur, which have a significant Kapu population, PRP is expected to play a decisive role in the electoral outcome, making Chiranjeevi a potential kingmaker.
Academic Suri, however, says PRP could falter in terms of its organisational abilities. "They do not have an organizational base which can convert that support into votes," he adds.
Still, Chiranjeevi’s movies are popular with the masses for the almost miraculous manner in which the protagonist overcomes the odds.
Lison Joseph in Hyderabad contributed to this story.