Pawan Kalyan makes a public appearance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Hyderabad and the BJP allots eight seats to his Jana Sena in Telangana. This, when the actor-politician is already electorally committed to Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and has declared that the two will join hands to defeat their bete noire YS Jagan Mohan Reddy. On the other hand, the BJP is not willing to consider friendship with Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and has been cold to its overtures. The BJP-JSP-TDP relationship status – complicated.
In cinematic style, Jana Sena chief Pawan Kalyan declared outside Rajamahendravaram Central Jail on September 14 that come what may, his party and the Telugu Desam would fight together in Andhra Pradesh in the 2024 election. In the same breath, he said he remained a part of the NDA and that he and the Jana Sena were already committed to the BJP as part of the alliance. He has repeatedly said he hopes all three can come together in Andhra Pradesh to defeat Jagan Reddy’s YSRCP.
The BJP’s relationship history with Chandrababu Naidu does not make it easy for them to forget the past and consent to a cosy threesome with the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, like in 2014. The BJP is not ready for a reconciliation after Chandrababu Naidu walked out on the party in 2018.
The action for now has moved to neighbouring Telangana, where elections are due in about three weeks. The umbilical connection between the two Telugu states means politics in the two states is deeply intertwined.
The TDP, which was in a pre-poll People’s Alliance with the Congress in 2018, has declared that the bicycle (TDP’s symbol) won’t participate in the Telangana election. Though Chandrababu Naidu is in Hyderabad – he was granted bail for medical treatment – he prefers to invest his time and resources on the fight in Andhra Pradesh and has opted out of the poll battle in Telangana. So, for the first time in 40 years, the bicycle will be missing from the ballot in any election.
The BJP’s own political graph in Telangana, seen to have soared since 2020, has fallen after its inexplicable decision to replace Bandi Sanjay as state chief, and apparent reluctance to act against K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR’s) daughter K Kavitha. So the BJP is perceived to have lost the anti-KCR sentiment votes to the Congress. The party would like to limit the damage.
That is where Pawan Kalyan comes in. For all the crowds that he draws and the hype, Pawan Kalyan has not really set the electoral box office on fire. He has not been able to win from either of the two assembly seats in Andhra Pradesh that he contested in 2019. The Jana Sena won a single assembly seat in 2019.
Why is the BJP keen on the Jana Sena in Telangana?
One, the Jana Sena has not been politically active in Telangana but Pawan Kalyan the actor has his fans, especially among the youth across the two Telugu states. So, his star appeal can bring in some votes for the BJP at a time their political prospects are looking bleak in Telangana.
Given that KCR’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) is admittedly on the backfoot with the youth with perception gaining ground about Telangana’s ruling party not doing enough for jobs and unemployment, the youth are a segment whose vote could otherwise go to the Congress.
Two, Pawan Kalyan’s brother, megastar Chiranjeevi, had managed an impressive 18 per cent of the vote share in 2009 in the Praja Rajyam’s debut electoral outing, not just on the basis of his larger-than-life star appeal but also the social justice plank and the Backward Caste Munnuru Kapu vote.
The Prime Minister’s meeting in Hyderabad, where Pawan Kalyan is special guest, focuses on the “self-respect” of Backward Caste communities. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has announced that if Telangana votes BJP to power, it will get a Backward Caste Chief Minister. The party’s hope is to reel in the community, with Pawan Kalyan in tow.
Three, the BJP knows there is a Telugu Desam support base in Telangana, in areas in and around Hyderabad, Nalgonda and Khammam. Amit Shah met Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh in New Delhi when the TDP chief was still inside Rajahmundry Jail. Lokesh said it was Telangana BJP chief Kishan Reddy who had contacted him. Also present at the meeting was Andhra Pradesh BJP chief Purandeswari, who happens to be Lokesh’s maternal aunt and Naidu’s sister-in-law. However, the optics was apparently for the benefit of TDP supporters in Telangana. To convey that the BJP had no role in sending Naidu to jail and that they were empathetic to Lokesh and Naidu’s plight.
The BRS appears to have earned the anger of those sympathetic to Naidu in Telangana, by failing to say and do the right things soon after his arrest. KCR’s party did not allow public protests in Hi-Tech City, citing security concerns, and that is an area whose development is credited by many to Chandrababu Naidu. The BRS tried to make amends, with statements by former TDP leaders, and BRS ministers like Puvvada Ajay in Khammam, a border district where the TDP has influence. A BRS candidate from Serilingampally, that has a significant population from Andhra Pradesh in the hitech city area of Hyderabad, made it a point to participate in the 25-year celebrations of Hi-Tech city, which were aimed at celebrating Naidu.
The attempt is to try and stop the “TDP supporter-Telanganite of Andhra Origin-Settler-turned-native-Kamma voter-Naidu empathiser vote” from going to the Congress that is now headed by Naidu’s once close confidante Revanth Reddy.
The BJP could hope that since Pawan Kalyan is now Naidu’s closest ally, by extension that vote could move the BJP-Jana Sena way. If it doesn’t work, the BJP could also use this to tell Pawan Kalyan that there is no point in an alliance with the TDP in Andhra Pradesh if the Telugu Desam vote won’t get transferred to the Jana Sena.
That Pawan Kalyan gets tickets far beyond his political weight in Telangana is a cause for resentment within the BJP among those who feel they should not cede ground in and around Hyderabad where the party has an electoral base. However, they have to weigh the larger picture. Interestingly, after a meeting with Pawan Kalyan in Hyderabad, BJP Telangana chief Kishen Reddy said the Jana Sena support had helped the BJP perform well in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections in December 2020.
How much the BJP gains from partnering with the Jana Sena would not be as politically significant as Pawan Kalyan’s own party performance in these elections. A poor show would certainly provide cannon fodder for his rival Jagan Reddy, who is gunning for the showman politician at every possible opportunity.
The BRS is likely to use the BJP-Jana Sena alliance to spotlight the “Delhi-Andhra hand” in these elections. Already, YSR Telangana Party leader YS Sharmila’s unconditional support to the Congress is being spoken about in the same tone. KCR, who fought both the 2014 and 2018 elections on the Telangana self-respect card, could use the same antagonist narrative to keep the new state free of control from Delhi and Andhra. After all, any story gets the audience more involved and engaged when it has an identifiable “enemy” and an Us vs Them dynamic.