With Andhra Pradesh going for simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha polls between April and May, a key figure to watch out for is actor-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan, whose Jana Sena Party is making an electoral debut and contesting all the 175 Assembly seats.
While the main contest is between the Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the YSR Congress Party, headed by Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, Pawan Kalyan with his mass appeal may well be an X factor in a tight race.
Known for his impulsive ways and outspoken views, the 47-year-old actor, fondly called “power star” by his fans, is not a politician in the conventional sense. His five-year-old party does not have a proper organisational structure nor is he one who dedicates his entire time to politics. His brand of politics is marked by a burst of activity followed by a prolonged lull.
At this juncture, the question that is being asked in political circles is whether Pawan Kalyan will be a hit at the political box office or end up like his elder brother Chiranjeevi, the mega star of Telugu cinema whose tryst with politics was a big flop show. Chiranjeevi had floated the Praja Rajyam Party in the run-up to the 2009 elections, but it failed to make much impact at hustings. He subsequently merged his party with the Congress and became a Rajya Sabha member. Now, he is keeping himself away from active politics.
Pawan Kalyan founded the Jana Sena party in March 2014 but has been largely inactive and reclusive since then. Barring a few public appearances in support of certain public issues and social causes, he has kept himself busy with shooting assignments.
Ahead of the 2014 elections, Pawan Kalyan had supported the NDA, saying he was a big fan of Narendra Modi. He even campaigned for the BJP-Telugu Desam Party combine, a factor that played a key role in the TDP coming to power in Andhra Pradesh.
However, in his renewed political avatar, Kalyan has been critical of both the BJP and the TDP for failing to keep up their promise of granting special category status to Andhra Pradesh which suffered huge loss after the bifurcation. Critics point out that Pawan Kalyan has been at best a freelance politician and lacks seriousness, strategy and organisation-building capacity that is required for a full-time politician.
Pawan Kalyan has a massive following among the youth belonging to Kapu community, a numerically strong and influential section in the coastal Andhra region. Accounting for nearly 27% of the state’s population of 5 crore, the community had overwhelmingly voted for the TDP-BJP combine for which the actor had campaigned extensively.
With a change in political dynamics, a split in Kapu votes could potentially upset the ruling party’s applecart. The Jana Sena Party has already announced that it will not have any tie-ups and will contest all the seats on its own. While the fledgling party may not be looking at the critical mass of seats to capture power, it surely is eyeing the role of a kingmaker in the event of a fractured mandate.
In the 2014 elections, the difference in the vote share between the victorious TDP-BJP combine and the YSRCP was a mere 1.6 per cent – the TDP-BJP combine got 46.69 per cent of votes against a 45.01 per cent of the YSRCP. The TDP won 102 seats and the BJP bagged five to emerge with a clear majority in the 175-member Assembly; the YSRCP in turn bagged 67 seats. In Lok Sabha, the difference between the two sides was slightly higher at 2.34 per cent. While the TDP-BJP combine got 47.95 per cent votes, the YSRCP came close to second with 45.61 per cent votes. But this was enough to almost double the seats of the TDP-BJP, which bagged 17 Lok Sabha seats against eight of the YSRCP.
The kapu community is mostly concentrated in the east and west Godavari districts, and in substantial numbers in Krishna district. Historically, whichever party swept the two Godavari districts, formed the government. In the previous elections, the TDP had won 12 of the 19 Assembly constituencies in East Godavari and made a clean sweep in West Godavari, winning 14 of the 15 seats while its ally BJP had won the remaining seats.
Quota a key issue
The kapu community has been on an agitation mode, demanding reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. Incidentally, the quota for kapus was one of the key poll promises of the TDP in the 2014 elections.
In response, the state Assembly had unanimously passed a bill in December 2017, providing five per cent reservation to Kapus, and sent it to the Centre for approval. However, the bill remained on paper as the proposed quota breached the 50 per cent ceiling set by the Supreme Court. The state government has now allocated 5 per cent quota to them from the 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections cleared by the Centre.
The state government’s move was based on the recommendations of the Justice Manjunatha Committee, which examined the demand of kapus and suggested earmarking 5 per cent quota for the kapu community.
The state had witnessed a violent agitation in January 2016 with M Padmanabham, former Congress MP from Kakinada and prominent leader of the community, undertaking an indefinite fast, demanding reservations for the community.
While Pawan Kalyan’s star appeal may bring huge crowds to his rallies, it is doubtful whether it can translate into votes, given the lack of party structure and concrete programmes.