HYDERABAD: When they ruled the roost in Telugu cinema, K Chiranjeevi and Nandamuri Balakrishna were like wary stags circling each other. They led fiercely competitive caste-based factions—Chiranjeevi the Kapu clique, and Balakrishna the Kamma elite. One was a nobody who rose to dizzy heights, and the other was the son of the legendary N T Rama Rao who founded the Telugu Desam in 1982 and became the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh thrice. Ironically, in 1995, NTR was dislodged in an internal rebellion by son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu, who became the party president. The wheel came full circle when NTR's son Balakrishna entered active politics on the TDP's behalf.
The bonhomie between Balakri shna and Chiranjeevi evaporated when NTR's son entered the public stage. Barely a month after he announced that he would contest the next elections on behalf of the Telegu Desam Party, founded by his father, the two stars are daggers drawn. Their fans are out on the streets baying for blood. In Nellore last week, fans on either side stood eyeball to eyeball before police muscled in and set them apart.
The spark that ignited the histrionics was a fairly innocuous bit of rhetoric by Balakrishna. While announcing his entry into politics at a function to celebrate the success of his latest hit, he breezily dismissed Chiranjeevi, describing the latter’s merger with the Congress party as a money-grubbing act. Chiranjeevi reacted with a patronising line. “Balakrishna is a baccha in politics,” he said. The NTR scion responded with a counter-insult: “I may be a child in politics. But Chiranjeevi seems to have grown into a real politician. That is why he is bargaining for Cabinet berths for his MLAs in Delhi after selling out his party.”
Chiranjeevi signalled peace by calling Balakrishna a good friend. But as the latter went on a spree of unveiling his father's statues, at one event, he thumped his thigh—his trademark screen mannerism—and declared that Chiranjeevi could not hold a candle to his dad: “My father, even though he was chief minister, took only `1 as salary, used his own car for official duties and entertained official guests at his own expense. And so, Johnnys-come-lately (read Chiranjeevi) would not measure up to NTR's toenail.”
There’s more to this needling than just the animus of a bitter past. Politics in Coastal Andhra, a traditional TDP bastion, is in ferment with Jagan Mohan Reddy making deep inroads on the strength of his Daddy, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy’s image as a poor man’s messiah. For the TDP, the only way to match the YSR factor and protect its turf is to hark back to NTR. So in the last few weeks, TDP boss Chandrababu Naidu launched a party initiative to erect NTR statues in villages, and kicked it off with one in his own village of Naravaripalle. But then, Naidu, being the man who dethroned his father-in-law NTR back in 1996, is hardly the man to carry credibility with ancestor worship. Whenever he speaks of NTR’s glory, his opponents take delight in pointing out that it was Naidu himself who backstabbed his father-in-law.
That’s where Balakrishna serves Naidu's purpose. Being his brother-in-law, he is family. As a filmstar, he draws crowds, matching Chiranjeevi. Moreover, Balakrishna is fresh in the minds of voters, having just reprised a mythological film in which he played the role of Ram, made famous by his father. And since everyone's playing caste politics, Balakrishna is ideal to keep the Kamma flock close to the TDP just as Jagan is attracting the Reddys and Chiranjeevi is being primed to get the Kapu vote for the Congress.
If Chiranjeevi has been less than aggressive in his ripostes to Balakrishna, it is because he is fighting off competitors within his own party. Having submerged his Praja Rajyam Party into the Congress, he is finding that his MLAs are no longer his. He is understood to have realized that instead of becoming an important leader in the Congress, he is faced with the prospect of his men rallying behind PCC president Botcha Satyanarayana, a fellow Kapu.
Also, the former No. 1 star of Telugu cinema is still finding his feet in the Congress and has not been told clearly what its plans for him are. Though elections are two and a half years away, both Chiranjeevi and Balakrishna are jostling for position. Their dramatics have acquired a sense of urgency right now because byelections are round the corner for about 25 Assembly seats.