The political discourse in south India, especially in states like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, is likely to be shaped by icons of their respective film industries. With just about 14 months to go for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it's the filmstars who are setting the political tone in states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Tollywood star and Jana Sena Party (JSP) founder Pawan Kalyan is the latest to join the bandwagon, as he hits the road across Telangana with a series of political rallies. This comes just weeks after Tamil superstar Rajinikanth announced his entry into politics on New Year's Eve.
Given the role played by filmstars in south Indian politics — MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa have both been chief ministers of Tamil Nadu while NT Rama Rao has been at the helm in Andhra Pradesh — this should come as no surprise. But while Pawan Kalyan is not new to politics, his road show in Telangana after projecting himself as a protagonist of 'Samaikhyandhra' (united Andhra Pradesh) has raised many eyebrows.
Putting speculations over his political ambitions to rest, the actor made it explicitly clear that he will continue to play kingmaker in the upcoming elections by pursuing "constructive" politics. He said he is pro-establishment and will respect the people's mandate. At one such recent public roadshow, the JSP leader called Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao a "smart and hard working CM", and praised him for introducing free electricity for agriculture, showing exactly how he plans to be pro-establishment.
Having Pawan for a friend will help Rao and his TRS party weather anti-incumbency and take on the formidable Congress party by drawing support from people of Andhra origin, and also from the many fans of the actor.
And it's not just the TRS but also the TDP that is pinning its hopes on Pawan's support in case it splits with ally BJP. The actor's support may be crucial for TDP as he is revered in his Kapu community, who number heavily in central coastal Andhra Pradesh. These regions send 52 seats to the 175-member state Assembly, many of whom are educated youth.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu got a bill passed in the Assembly providing 5 percent reservations to Kapus in education and employment, indicating that the party is ambitiously eyeing their votes. The party may be nervous after a pre-poll survey conducted by C-Voter/Republic TV predicted a decline in the TDP's Lok Sabha count, from its present 17 to 12 seats.
Pawan hit out at the NDA government over the special category status despite his support to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019 election, while pedaling soft on the TDP regime. His pro-establishment stance means many refer to Pawan Kalyan as the 'B-team' of the KCR government in Telangana and simultaneously a covert for Andhra Pradesh's chief minister Chandrababu Naidu. Political analysts view his moves as a signal for his possible aligning with the ruling parties in both states.
Pawan likes to compare himself to the Marxist revolutionary guerilla leader Che Guevara, and also to Bhagat Singh. But this comes in stark contrast to the pro-establishment stand he has taken. Pawan's brother and Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi had floated the Praja Rajam Party ahead of the 2009 election, hoping to bank on the numerically strong Kapu community's votes and be elected to power. However, his plans of becoming chief minister suffered a blow, resulting in the merger of the 18 PRP MLAs with the then ruling Congress.
Pawan appears to have much in common with Rajinikanth, in that they have both adopted a pro-establishment stand. By expressing his adoration for "spiritual politics", Rajini indicated that he would be an ideological friend for the BJP which is trying to enter the unfamiliar terrain of Tamil Nadu, home to a staunch anti-Hindutva ideology propagated by EV Rama Swamy Periyar.
As part of pursuing "constructive politics", Rajini had met then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee ahead of the 2004 elections, and had even donated Rs 10 million for realisation of the river linkage project.
Unlike Rajini and Pawan, the politics pursued by Kamal Haasan and Prakash Raj are staunchly anti-BJP. This is causing a polarisation of politics between the Right and Left wing groups in these states. Kannada film star Prakash Raj became a rallying point for anti-BJP voices across south India after his tirade against the Narendra Modi administration following the assassination of activist and journalist Gauri Lankesh in September.
Similarly, Kamal's professed intent to identify with Periyar's rationalism school of thought at a time when it's being diluted by parties founded on Periyar's ideology has also become a ray of hope for groups trying to build an alternative platform based on secular politics.