‘Love does not always get converted into votes. Electioneering is a different ball game’ – Telegu superstar, now a Congressman, Chiranjeevi…

Posted on: December 6, 2011

As I shake hands with K. Chiranjeevi, I remember an angry young cop called Siddhant. The honest officer inPratibandh, the Telugu superstar’s 1990 Bollywood debut, fought against corruption — and won.

It’s this badge of honesty that the actor would like to flaunt as he shapes his career in Andhra politics. “I will continue to work with honesty and sincerity,” says Chiru, as the 55-year-old actor-turned-politician is universally known.

Last month, Chiranjeevi merged his two-and-a-half-year-old Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) with the Congress. Though the formal union is yet to take place, the PRP chief already sounds like a Gandhi loyalist. “Sonia Gandhi is a woman of great values,” he says as he leans on a plump purple cushion placed on the grey leather sofa in his sitting room.

We are sitting in his house — built on 18,000 square feet of land — set with glass, steel and marble atop the second highest cliff in Hyderabad’s Jubilee Hills. The room, decorated with a carved onyx statue, crystal flower vases and two glass lovebirds placed in two corners, spells opulence. But the owner’s heart, he reiterates, beats for the poor.

In our one-hour-long conversation, he points out five times that he joined politics to serve the poor. How does he relate to the poor, I ask him, when he is sitting in his palatial white house. “You know, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani (the heart beats for India),” Chiru replies. “Remember Shah Rukh’s film,” he asks, referring to the 2000 Khan starrer of that name.

Chiranjeevi, aka Konidala Siva Sankara Vara Prasad, belonged to a middle-class family. His father was an excise constable who retired as an assistant superintendent. The eldest of the four siblings, he graduated in commerce and then joined the Film and Television Institute in Chennai.

Tamil superstar Rajinikanth was his senior at the institute. Even now, the two share a warm relationship. “I always thought he would be the one to join politics first,” says Chiru, who acted with Rajinikanth in the Telugu film Kaali.

But it was Chiranjeevi who surprised everybody by announcing his political plans three years ago. Many believe that his decision to join hands with the Congress is an outcome of the drubbing he got in the 2009 state elections, when only 18 of his candidates won seats in the 294-member legislative assembly.

But Chiranjeevi begs to differ. “In modern-day politics, a coalition is inevitable,” he says. “This merger is for the betterment of the people. I have decided to clean the system with the help of the ruling party,” says Chiranjeevi, who now has two sets of four security men guarding him round the clock.

It’s difficult to believe his words, for it was just a few months ago that he was going hammer and tongs at the Congress on corruption issues such as the leasing of mines and transfer of land to private firms.

The fight against corruption, he explains earnestly, will continue, despite the merger. What’s driven him towards the bigger party, he adds, is its pro-poor policy. “Ideology-wise, there is no conflict between the PRP and the Congress.”

The stage was set when the Congress sought an alliance with the PRP for the Greater Hyderabad municipal corporation elections in 2009. The Congress eventually backed out, but the actor continued his good relationship with former chief minister K. Rosaiah.

In 2010, Congress president Sonia Gandhi invited Chiranjeevi to New Delhi and requested him not to field a candidate for the Rajya Sabha polls. He agreed “unconditionally”. Thereafter, defence minister and party emissary A.K. Antony regularly visited Hyderabad and carried on negotiating with Chiranjeevi.

His alliance with the Congress comes at a time when chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy is facing a revolt within the party, with some 24 MLAs tilting towards rebel leader Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, who left the Congress late last year. It is believed that Chiranjeevi’s MLAs will help counter the challenge from Jaganmohan if he does engineer a defection. “As a responsible politician, I decided to support the government at the time of collapse,” says the MLA from Tirupati. And the Congress cadre, he adds, will help him strengthen his base.

He speaks softly, if somewhat inarticulately in English, often groping for the right words. Occasionally, his media adviser helps him rephrase his sentences. But quite like a seasoned politician, Chiranjeevi does not duck uncomfortable questions. And every now and then he checks to see what I’m writing in my note pad.

Chiranjeevi is surprisingly honest when he talks about the high expectations that people had of the PRP, and the disappointment that followed after its electoral defeat. The huge turnouts at public rallies, he saw to his dismay, didn’t translate into votes. “I realised then that love does not always get converted into votes. Electioneering is a different ball game,” he stresses.

But Chiru — whose fleet of cars includes a Mercedes and a Rolls Royce — adds that he was a newcomer to politics with no political base. “And I was fighting two strong opposition forces — the Congress and TDP, parties with money and muscle power.

Since we are on the subject of the Telugu Desam Party, I ask him how N. Chandrababu Naidu, the darling of the chattering classes, didn’t see his own downfall in the 2004 Assembly polls when he was defeated by the Congress. “He was carried away by intellectuals’ opinion and didn’t know the ground reality. His mistake was that he got stuck in the information technology sector, which he developed by ignoring the rural people,” Chiranjeevi analyses.

He is now battling Naidu on another front — that of a separate state of Telangana, a move that the PRP opposes. Yet when he kicked off his political campaign in 2008, he spoke of a Samajika (social) Telangana — ruled by the marginalised classes. Immediately after the elections, he started propagating a Jai Samaikya (integrated) Andhra Pradesh.

“I saw that during the campaign, no one accepted the theory of a separate Telangana. And I felt the pulse more clearly after the verdict was out,” he explains.

But the movement, he believes, has flared up because of political parties who have “misguided” the people. “Now the issue has gone out of hand and the centre has to deal with it fast,” says Chiranjeevi, reacting to home minister P. Chidambaram’s recent statement that the issue cannot be decided overnight.

But his position on Telangana has divided his own fledgling party. Two of his MLAs have voiced their demand for a separate state and two others have joined Jaganmohan’s camp. But Chiranjeevi is not spending any sleepless nights over them. “Better forget them,” he says with a yawn.

So I move on to a subject that is still close to his heart — cinema. The Telugu superstar who wowed his fans with power-packed performances in KhaidiRudra VeenaIndraand Gharana Mogudu — the first Telugu movie to earn more than Rs 10 crore — is always ready to talk about cinema. He points out that it was the lead role in the filmTagore (which, incidentally, had nothing to do with the Nobel Laureate) that inspired him the most in real life. In Tagore, he single-handedly eliminates a series of corrupt individuals.

Chiranjeevi, whose last lead role was in the 2007 film Shankar Dada Zindabad, also made a guest appearance in 2010 in Magadheera — where he shared the screen with his son Ram Charan Tej, a popular Telugu hero. “My son is filling the vacuum that was created when I left cinema,” says the recipient of the Padma Bhushan.

He says he wouldn’t mind acting in new films if the scripts enthuse him. “Since I am a political leader now, I have to choose my roles carefully,” he adds.

A member of Kapu community, he says his goal now is to improve the life of backward classes. Some say the Congress is eyeing his Kapu base, but the megastar stresses his politics is “above caste”.

Yet he opposed his daughter’s clandestine wedding in 2007 because, the local media reported, he disapproved of Srija’s inter-caste marriage with an engineering graduate. “All that is over now,” he replies. “My children are my biggest stress busters.”

I get up to leave and notice not just the diamond flashing on his finger but the few strands of grey hair in his moustache. He is, however, fit for his age, which he attributes to an hour’s workout in his gym every day.

He walks me down to the garden and swimming pool, which seems to merge into the city. This, he says, is his favourite corner in the house. “It is amazing to see the city from here,” says Chiranjeevi. And let’s just hope he can see his constituency as well.

(Published in March, 2011)


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