Pawan Kalyan’s politics is a prisoner of his filmy fame 

Telugu superstar Pawan Kalyan’s failure to emerge as a challenger to the established players in Telugu politics is thanks to his overt invocation of filmy tropes, minus a solid political programme

After nearly four years of launching his political party, Pawan Kalyan remains a marginal player in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The Telugu film star, better known as Power Star Pawan Kalyan or simply PSPK, made a big bang entry into politics in 2014 with a party named Janasena. The choice of Hyderabad International Convention Center (HICC) as the venue to launch Janasena signalled that PSPK had missed a performance trick.

Now HICC is Telugu film industry’s preferred venue for its film launches and award ceremonies. When serious political aspirants decide to take the plunge, they do it through giant public rallies in places carefully chosen for their political significance.

NT Ramarao launched the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) from a massive public meeting at Tirupati, while K Chandrasekhar Rao launched the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) from Warrangal. But, Pawan, known for making characteristic style statements in his movies Attarintiki Daaredi (2013) and Gabbar Singh (2012), chose the controlled environment of a new age convention center. It wasn’t a come one-come all political event. The audience was made up of fully paid up PSPK fans.

This difference between Pawan and the others is symbolic of a basic problem with the former's political identity. The Power Star may be a big draw with fans and producers, but remains a non-entity at the political box office.

Pawan's style quotient: Too much of a good thing?

Pawan's style quotient is the secret of his soaring popularity. It has won him the loyalty of thousands of Telugu fans across Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Telangana. Even young MLAs from rival political parties openly express their adulation for him. His popularity can be gauged from the fact that the poor performance of his January 2018 release, Agnyaathavaasi, has deterred neither film producers nor fans from awaiting his next release. According to Telugu film industry watchers, Agnyaathavaasi has not dampened the spirits of a dozen or so big banner film producers, awaiting a nod from Pawan to announce their next project.

Power Star Pawan Kalyan may be a big draw with fans and producers, but he remains a non-entity at the political box office

Telugu film journalist, Dhuli Udayavani, ascribed the secret of Pawan's popularity with the youth to his stylish dialogue delivery, fight sequences and catchy mannerisms. “Pawan has cultivated these elements carefully and made them his unique style statements. This captivating style has won him both fans and producers alike,” Udayavani said.

But there is talk now that the overuse of these style elements in Agnyaathavaasi may have sunk the movie. This overuse of 'style' appears to have spilled over into Pawan's politics as well.

For example, at Pawan's public meetings after the Janasena launch, such as the one at Tirupati (August 2016) and in Anantapur (November 2016), the venue was decked up to resemble film sets. Pawan himself made emotionally-charged speeches, a hallmark of these meetings. Throngs of fans – unmindful of the political content of his speeches – continuously hailed 'Chief Minister Pawan Pawan' during the meetings. Pawan's political targets were only vaguely identified as the Central and State governments.

If politics, as the political thinker Carl Schmitt contends, is a battle for the creation of political space requiring the establishment of a ‘friend and enemy’, then Pawan is not even in the game yet.

A web of contradictions

Pawan's political positions appear full of internal contradictions. He has been unable to disentangle himself from them and present a clear political programme. For instance, his brother, the actor, Chiranjeevi, who floated the Praja Rajyam party went with a 'social justice' plank (shorthand for uniting all the non-Kamma and non-Reddy communities – the two dominant caste blocs in Andhra Pradesh – under a single banner). Praja Rajyam, which could not pull off this experiment, was merged with the Congress after the 2009 general election.

The contradictions in Pawan's politics flow from the following factors: by caste he is a Kapu (the caste grouping constitutes 18% of population across the two states), by provenance an ‘Andhrodu’ (a person native to AP as opposed to Telangana) but has settled down in Hyderabad which is now in Telangana; he also happens to be a movie star who wants his films to be equally successful in both the Telugu-speaking states. Given this background, it is difficult for Pawan to raise key political issues in his speeches such as the 'injustice' meted out to AP during the state’s bifurcation, AP Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu's failure in securing special status for the State from the Central government, and unrest among the jobless and farmers' and students' suicides in Telangana among other issues.

Further, if he attacks Naidu’s TDP government in AP, it would immediately be construed as an attack on Kammas (Naidu's caste) by the Kapus. He also can’t be seen as attacking Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao because he would run the risk of being dubbed an 'Andhra settler' and hence anti-Telangana. Such a strategy could also affect his film revenues in Telangana.

Finally, on the caste reservation question, he is simply stuck between two untenable positions. If he openly identifies himself as a Kapu, it would isolate him from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), many of whom oppose the demand for reservations to Kapus. At the same time, he can’t be seen as an opponent to Kapu reservations as a means to attract the OBCs to him.

Pawan seems to have taken the easy way out and jettisoned all prickly issues, including those that would rub Naidu and Rao the wrong way. He is now seen as cosying up to the two chief ministers rather than emerging as a challenger.

An unsurprising U-Turn

Pawan recently praised Telangana as a model state and Rao as its model chief minister. This marked a U-turn from his earlier equation with Rao. Just before the launch of Janasena in March 2014, at a public meeting in support of the TDP-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance in Warangal district, Pawan warned Rao (then a staunch opponent of Narendra Modi) that he would flay anybody who attacked Modi, who appeared set to become India’s first OBC prime minister. The comment led to him being branded as anti-Rao. It took over three years for Pawan to buy peace with the Telangana stalwart. That became necessary for him as he was unable to tour interior Telangana freely having crossed swords with the powerful CM.

Now Pawan has embarked on a political tour across Telangana’s districts starting from Kondagattu, in Karimnagar after having reportedly sought the blessings of Rao for the tour. Rao has instructed TRS workers not to create problems for Pawan during his campaign in Telangana, according to reports. In neighbouring AP, Pawan is seen as being propped up by Naidu to neutralise the opposition leader Jaganmohan Reddy’s (YSR Congress) impact.

For those awaiting the emergence of a new challenger to the established satraps of Telugu politics, Pawan has proved to be a disappointment.

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