On Mother Teresa’s Birthday in 2008, Telugu megastar Chiranjeevi held a mammoth rally at Tirupati to announce the formation of his Praja Rajyam Party. While professing his admiration for the world’s most famous nun and other inspirational figures, the new kid on the block told the gathering of fans and supporters about his vision of an undivided Andhra Pradesh. The media compared the launch with legendary actor NT Rama Rao’s dramatic entry into Andhra politics to end the Congress’s hegemony in the state.
Kapu, the intermediary caste group in Andhra was said to be the support base on which Praja Rajyam was expected to build its political edifice. In the Seemandhra region, the community constitutes almost a quarter of the electorate. Chiranjeevi’s pan-state fan following, it was said, would help his party build a larger social coalition to take on the Reddy-dominated Congress (under YS Rajasekhara Reddy) and Kamma-driven Telugu Desam Party (TDP) under N Chandrababu Naidu.
But that was not to be. Three years later, Chiranjeevi merged his party with the Congress to become tourism minister in the Manmohan Singh cabinet.
A lot of water has flown down the mighty Godavari since. Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh ahead of the 2014 general elections. YSR’s son Jagan has formed his own party and won an election to oust Naidu from power. The Congress remains decimated in Andhra.
Another Telugu megastar, Pawan Kalyan, has also been trying his luck in electoral politics since 2014. His Jana Sena – like Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam – is seen to be hedging its bets on Kapu consolidation in the party’s favour.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), despite an upsurge in its vote share and political fortunes since 2014, has remained on the margins of the state’s politics.
The saffron party’s recent moves in forging an alliance with Pawan Kalyan can be seen as an attempt by it to get a foothold in Andhra through a caste group.
And this is vintage BJP at work. Contrary to common belief, perhaps the BJP has gained more from the Mandal disruption than the Mandir mobilisation.
In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the BJP has mobilised all non-dominant backward class votes to emerge as the key pole in politics. In Gujarat, the party’s electoral performance has been intrinsically linked to the support from Patels. So is the case in Madhya Pradesh. In Maharashtra, non-Marathas, especially the backward communities, are the BJP’s core vote bank. In all these provinces, the upper caste and other communities mobilse around the core backward voter to form a larger ‘Hindu’ umbrella.
The BJP’s first successful foray in southern India again was triggered by a social experiment when the party exploited the leadership vacuum in the Janata Parivar. For a long time, in the 1980s and 90s, three-term chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde’s acceptability among the Lingayats gave little space to the BJP to expand. Though a Brahmin by caste, Hegde was seen to be providing leadership to the Lingayat’s vis-à-vis the other dominant social caste – the Vokkaligas.
After Hegde’s death, the BJP moved in swiftly to mobilise the Lingayat vote bank by projecting a battery of leaders from the community. In 10 years, BS Yediyurappa was the chief minister of Karnataka.
In Kerala, the BJP’s attempts to rope in the largest Hindu social group – the Ezhavas – by aligning with a faction of the charitable group Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, or SNDP. In Tamil Nadu, the party has worked to reach out to Devendrakulam Vellar, a caste group with presence in southern districts of the state.
In Telangana and in Andhra, however, even as the BJP has sought to make inroads, the missing link remains a key caste component to generate a critical mass.
Perhaps the party thinks, Pawan Kalyan and the Kapu vote base would provide the necessary fillip to mop up seats in the 2024 Lok Sabha and assembly polls.
But Pawan Kalayan has learnt his lessons from the error of judgment made by his co-star Chiranjeevi. While Praja Rajyam merged with the Congress, Jana Sena has sought to retain its identity and caste base.