With a fiery, two-hour speech in which he called out chief minister Chandrababu Naidu's regime as corrupt last week, actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan looks set to emerge as a serious contender when Andhra Pradesh goes to the polls next year.
“Why should anybody support you (Naidu) in 2019? You changed Andhra Pradesh into Corruption Pradesh,” he roared during a public meeting organised to mark the fourth founding day of the Jana Sena in Guntur on March 14. This is the first time that Pawan has openly challenged the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), having thus far endorsed Naidu. 'Power star' Pawan sought to reassure the people that he was no proxy to Naidu nor was the Jana Sena sponsored by the TDP in an attempt to finish the opposition YSR Congress Party (YCP) – a charge that had been troubling the Kapu community for some time now. His statements have therefore enthused the third largest land-owning community in the state after the Kammas and the Reddys. The Kapus are now hoping that Pawan will emerge as a force to reckon with in the 2019 state and general elections, and perhaps see for the first time a caste member as the state's chief minister.
“On March 14, Jana Sena metamorphosed into a real political party,” says Ramu Adabala, a member of the group Kapu Shakti. “It is clear now who are the enemies and against whom the party has to wage the battle. In 2014, we were just voters, voters for TDP. In 2018, we are a political party. We will vote for our own party.”
A cultivated image
The Kapus, a widespread, educated and highly-visible caste across Andhra Pradesh, were initially attracted to Pawan because they viewed him as an angry, young man with lofty ideals. He was even revered as ‘Che’ Guevara by fans. Pawan used to openly declare that he was inspired by the Latin American Marxist revolutionary and actively cultivated an image to match this impression. A voracious reader, his fans claim that Pawan wanted to run the party with his own vision and ‘isms’ and has co-authored a couple of booklets to define his ideology. In the struggle to present himself in a unique manner, he transformed his attire and hairstyle and presents himself as the solo performer on stage at public events. While his party lacks structure and consistency, politicians in Andhra Pradesh cannot dismiss him as non-entity as he is taken seriously by the ordinary man.
Yet many a fan and members of his Kapu caste were disappointed when he campaigned for TDP, with BJP's Narendra Modi by his side in the run up to the 2014 general election. He could not emerge from the shadow of Naidu, whom he had called the most experienced administrator in the state, even when Naidu’s government got mired in illegal allotment of land to investors. His silence when environmentalists and intellectuals dubbed the Amaravati project as a real estate venture, pained many, even as his attempt to club the YCP and TDP together for government failures earned him disrepute as the Naidu's agent. Pawan's stand vis-à-vis opposition leader YS Jaganmohan Reddy has been clear for a long time; He is opposed to YCP because of an ongoing CBI inquiry against him in a disproportionate assets case.
But the Pawan that showed up at last week's Guntur meeting, having emerged from brainstorming sessions with former bureaucrats such as Padmanabhaiah (IAS), Jayaprakash Narayan (IAS), IYR Krishna Rao (IAS), Thota Chandrasekhar (IAS) and former parliamentarian Vundavalli Arun Kumar, seems to be a transformed politician. And this, new Pawan, many believe, has the potential to upset the plans of Naidu’s TDP and Jagan’s YCP.
It has long been the dream of the Kapus to have their own political party and see their leader as the state's chief minister. By and large, they are happy that Pawan is being seen as an emerging force. But the umbrella term 'Kapus' is a tad misleading given that members of the caste in Rayalseema go by the name Balijas while those in north coastal Andhra are known as Turpu Kapus. Both these are backward castes unlike the Kapus of coastal Andhra, who are a forward caste. Together, the three are estimated to make up18 per cent of the state's population. Interestingly, the three castes are not related, i.e. they do not inter-marry unlike the Reddys and the Kammas. So while the Kapus may desire political unity, the reality is that they remain socially distinct.
Some say uniting the Kapus will be possible if Pawan joins hands with his brother Chiranjeevi and relies on his plank of social justice. When 'mega star' Chiranjeevi launched his political party Praja Rajyam in 2008, the Kapus were certain that a Kapu would become chief minister. Chiranjeevi, however, could not topple the Congress, and ended up in the third position with 18 seats in the 2009 election. In 2011, he merged his party with the Congress and got himself inducted in Manmohan Singh's Union cabinet. The Kapus were happy that their leader was in Delhi and that one day the Congress would send him back to Andhra Pradesh as chief minister. But the state's bifurcation played spoilsport. The Congress drew a blank in the 2014 assembly election for the bifurcated state, and Chiranjeevi turned his attention to Tollywood.
“Though undeclared, Pawan is carrying forward the social justice agenda of the erstwhile Praja Rajyam of Chiranjeevi,” says a Janasena functionary on condition of anonymity. “Now the chances of the two leaders coming together are bright. All communities that want to emerge as a political force against the Reddys and the Kammas are bound to gravitate towards Jana Sena.” Pawan cannot be dismissed, he adds.
Irrespective of whether he becomes king or not, Pawan has sealed a spot for himself as kingmaker. “I can’t rule out the Congress working with Pawan Kalyan against the corrupt Telugu Desam and the communal BJP,” says Bollisetty Satyanarayana, a senior Congress leader from Vizag, adding that Pawan is now free of encumbrances to become a rallying point for a third front to emerge in Andhra politics. “We will soon bring to the notice of party president Rahul Gandhi the change in Jana Sena chief’s attitude towards TDP and BJP, and urge him to explore the possibility of joining hands with him. The meeting point for us is the demand for special category status. The Congress president has already assured that the Congress government’s top priority will be to accord special category status to Andhra Pradesh.”