Superhero not quite zero, but getting there

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August 11th, 2011 Aditi Phadnis

Wildly popular Telugu actor but a spent political force, Chiranjeevi will merge his Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) with the Congress on 14 August. Blessing this union will be Rahul Gandhi.

In the absence of his mother who is recuperating from illness, this will Rahul Gandhi’s first ‘merger and acquisition’, never mind that he did very little work towards it. But more to the point, why is Chiranjeevi so important to the Congress? after all, wasn’t his electoral performance deeply disappointing ?

The answer lies in caste politics.

The problem with the Congress in Andhra Pradesh has always been a rapid turnover of Chief Ministers, but even the two most distinguished ones: PV Narasimha Rao and N Sanjeeva Reddy, who went on to become Prime Minister and President of India, were Brahmin and Reddy respectively. The Congress has never offered the people of Andhra Pradesh a Chief Minister from the  Backward Classes (BC).

The most prominent BCs are the Kapus: some sub-castes are considered backward while others are counted among the forward castes (in itself a conspiracy to divide them, but that’s another issue). Chiranjeevi is a Munnuru Kapu – from the forward among the backward. United, Kapus and other backward sub-castes can represent a politically electrifying force in Andhra Pradesh politics.

BC disempowerment has lain dormant but festering. Successive Congress governments tried to balance the politically dominant and economically prosperous Kamma and Reddy castes with a judicious combination of BCs but this left everyone dissatisfied.

Caste consolidation as a means of politics was first achieved by the Reddy community that dominated the politics of the south India. It is the wealthiest, most powerful caste and highly educated, although, the sixth President of India, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy and some of the chief ministers of the State of Andhra Pradesh and many notable Reddy personalities come from middle class and very poor families.

Dr. Bejawada Gopalareddy served as chief minister of Andhra State from March 1955 to October 1956. Ten of the twenty elected Chief Ministers of Andhra Pradesh including Kiran Kumar Reddy, the present incumbent and son of the late Dr. Y.S.Rajasekhara Reddy, are from the Reddy community. Though in Andhra Pradesh the population of Reddys is 11 per cent, the community  occupies 40 per cent  of the state legislative assembly seats. The community is very divided along sub case and even religious lines. For example, YS Rajasekhar Reddy was Christian, Chenna reddy belonged to the Kapu community and Anjaiah belonged to the Gone sub-caste. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy belonged to the Pakanati sub-caste.

Reddy dominance was challenged by the Kamma community, also rich and politically powerful, from the coastal Andhra districts who joined up behind NT Rama Rao in the early 1980s. The rallying cry was Telugu atma gouravam (pride) but the Telugu Desam Party actually represented Kamma empowerment.

Things got so bad for other castes that in 1988, Vangaveeti Ranga – a politician who was from the Backward Castes (BC) - sat on a hunger strike citing a threat to his life from the TDP and was actually murdered. But even this did not really result in BC consolidation for want of leadership.

When Chiranjeevi arrived on the scene, everyone thought a new force had been born. But caste or no caste, some traits don’t change. In the highly feudal politics of AP, Chiranjeevi let his family and subcaste followers establish a stranglehold over him. The result  was a a huge electoral disappointment. The party won just 18 out of 294 assembly seats in the 2009 elections.

All parties have recognized the importance of theBackward Castes. Before the 2009 assmebly elections, Congress Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy announced that 33 per cent of the
seats would be given to BCs. TDP bettered this: it said it will give 40 per cent seats to BCs. This is clearly in anticipation of the Chiranjeevi factor.

But the consolidation of the Munnuru Kapus and BCs  turned out to be a dream. Chiranjeevi’s
Praja Rajyam was not the runaway hit it was expected to be. Now, he is joining the Congress.
How will this impact that party? First, it will act as an electoral bulwark against the onslaught of Jagan Mohan Reddy, YSR’s son. It will stabilise the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh.

Second, it might defuse at least part of the demand for Telangana. PRP was strongly for Telangana and said so at the all party meeting held in december last year. Now when he is joining the Congress, the actor will have to tweak his demand somewhat.

Any way, Chiranjeevi’s entry into the Congress will liven up things a bit. Watch out for him.

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