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    South Asia
     Sep 19, 2008

Tinsel politics return in India
By Sreeram Chaulia

The advent of Chiranjeevi's Praja Rajyam (People's Rule) party in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has reignited an old trend of Tollywood stars cashing in on personas to catapult themselves to power, with the 53-year-old actor only the latest in a long string of matinee idols to make a foray into politics.

Chiranjeevi's glittering entrance has prompted feverish speculation in Andhra over the possible impact his party will have on the ruling Congress and opposition Telugu Desam Party. Opinions vary over which will bear the brunt of the wildcard entry and optimistic commentators say the Chiranjeevi factor could lead to a defeat of ruling party and marginalization of the opposition.

Given the arithmetic of "vote banks", which fluctuate with caste and regional heterogeneity in Andhra Pradesh, and the widening of the fray due to Chiranjeevi's foray, it is also possible that next year's state assembly elections could produce a hung assembly. Andhra may then become another Uttar Pradesh, the north Indian state where a triangulation of the political space has led to frequent expediential alliances for control of the chessboard.

Numbers aside, the advent of Praja Rajyam has not yet been analyzed in terms of its deeper significance for political participation and political efficacy, two main dimensions of India's democracy. The party claims that Chiranjeevi's charisma is attracting younger supporters all over Andhra, and will draw them into polling booths with unparalleled enthusiasm.

While this seems encouraging for democracy, the question remains as to why Indians need the lightning rod of a film star to increase their political participation. When there are traditionally low levels of civic consciousness and involvement in public issues, apathy could be shaken by an electrifying figure - exactly the kind of effect with which admirers credit Chiranjeevi.

But when civic crusaders in Andhra came together in 2006 to convert electoral watchdog Lok Satta into a political party, there was no comparable hysteria that it may embolden the people to demand better standards of governance. Despite Lok Satta's long and respectable track record of advocacy for raising voter awareness and integrity in public life, its reincarnation as a party was not portrayed in the media as a thunderbolt which would usher in a new era of clean politics.

The hoopla surrounding Praja Rajyam is thus a reminder of the deficiencies in India's political culture, where glitter and glamour get huge lifts from opinion makers at the cost of genuine parties which promise to reform the system.

A closer examination of Chiranjeevi's message is also a cause for concern, with his inaugural speech at the temple town of Tirupati on August 26 showcasing a Praja Rajyam which will cast a wide net as a catch-all party. By simultaneously positioning himself as an opponent of special economic zones - as they displace the poor - and as a proponent of attracting rich investors, he sent mixed messages.

He also announced a wait-and-see approach towards the critical state-relevant issues of separatism in Telangana and affirmative action for downtrodden castes, revealing an opportunistic core.

Political parties in India are increasingly bereft of good campaign issues, and Praja Rajyam is a prime example. With no ideological cachet of his own, Chiranjeevi is attempting to ride his personal charm as a film star into the seat of power. The political arena can truly expand if newcomers offer something distinct and clearly identifiable by voters, yet Praja Rajyam shows no ideological clarity of its own, except for the banal declaration that his is a "party of social justice".

In a bygone era, doyen of popular cinema in Andhra, Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao, commonly known as NTR, generated waves of Telugu regional pride as he swept to power at the 1983 assembly elections, at a time when there were no strong regional parties in Andhra politics. The development of strong regional parties like NTR's, which catered to their respective linguistic states, was imperative if India's federalism was to survive and take root.

The extraordinary success of NTR achieved this goal and eventually also sowed the seeds for bi-partism in national politics, by providing an alternative to the hitherto permanent rule of the Congress in New Delhi.

Comparisons between NTR's storming of Andhra politics and Chiranjeevi's bid are being made ad nauseam these days, but it bears reminding that the former took on the mantle of public leadership long before his formal launch of Telugu Desam.

In 1952, NTR sensitized Telugu people to the plight of drought-prone Rayalaseeema and raised funds for relief supplies, a feat he repeated in 1977 for cyclone victims in Diviseema. During India's 1965 conflict with Pakistan, NTR was at the forefront of galvanizing the public in Andhra to donate to a central defense fund at a crucial juncture of the country's history.

NTR also enjoyed the unanimous backing of the Telugu film industry when he took stands for public causes. The goodwill and gratitude he earned in the movie trade over the course of his 300-odd-film career was unmatched, and a critical reservoir of support for Telugu Desam.

On all the above counts, Chiranjeevi fails to match NTR's achievements. The NTR-Chiranjeevi comparison illustrates that mere acclaim as an actor is neither necessary nor sufficient for winning elections or, more importantly, solving people's problems. Phenomena such as NTR and Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran Menon, the south Indian cinema colossus who was chief minister of Andhra's neighboring state Tamil Nadu for seven years, did capitalize on their magnetic screen presence - but also harnessed long years of civic engagement.

Sheer movie star power has never been enough to mesmerize the world public, and former US president and film star, Ronald Reagan earned his spurs as a progressive head of the Hollywood Screen Actors Guild in the 1930s at a time when exploitation of workers in the American film industry was de rigueur.

Action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger also had political affiliations with the Republican Party dating to 1968 before he became the governor of California. Former Philippine president and movie icon Joseph Estrada served as a mayor and senator for decades before he rose to his country's top political office.

Historian Ramachandra Guha argues that, compared to their Bollywood peers in the Hindi heartland, southern Indian film stars have a greater following and larger-than-life auras because they apotheosize unique sub-nationalisms and linguistic identities in the most multicultural country of the world. Chiranjeevi does not fit this bill because of the diluted ideology and vagueness of Praja Rajyam, which is emerging as neither fish nor fowl.

While fans of the actor have hailed his new starring role in politics, the overall implications of his arrival do not bode well for the theory and practice of democracy in India.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, New York.

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