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Page last updated at 14:38 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 15:38 UK

Campaigning with Indian megastar

Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) leader Chiranjeevi, standing on car center, looks skywards during an election campaign rally in Hyderabad, India, Thursday, April 9, 2009
Chiranjeevi is adored by huge crowds of fans

Film star Chiranjeevi is the latest celebrity to enter Indian politics. The BBC's Damian Grammaticas joined him on the campaign trail in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

As Chiranjeevi's campaign truck swings into view the huge crowds lining the road erupt. A boiling, heaving mass of people screams adulation at their hero. The noise is so loud I can't even hear myself speak.

They surge forwards, some literally throwing themselves at the film star's vehicle. Muscled young men in the security team protecting the truck fight to keep the crowds back.

One supporter carrying a giant necklace of flowers tries to climb up to the roof of the vehicle to present it to Chiranjeevi. The guards drag him back down, ripping his shirt from his back, then they thrust his garland into my hand to pass it to the screen idol. The huge string of flowers must weigh an incredible 5kg.

Standing on the roof of the bus, serenely calm amidst all the chaos, Chiranjeevi, clasps his hands in prayer and bows his heads to the crowds. As he does so the noise rises even louder, reaching a crescendo that makes my ears ring.

The 53-year-old who they call Megastar or The Immortal One, is making his political debut in this election, and he's added a new, electrifying dynamic to the vote in Andhra Pradesh, one of India's key battleground states.

'Justice for poor'

We joined him for the last day of campaigning ahead of the second phase of voting in the general election. Across Andhra Pradesh hundreds of thousands have come out to hear Chiranjeevi speak, his biggest rallies have drawn crowds estimated at more than a million.

For too long power in this country has been held by just a few, everyone else has been kept out - it's time that changed
Chiranjeevi

In the temple town of Tirupati he took the microphone and berated the ruling Congress Party for doing nothing for the poor, the crowd roared approval.

He castigated another rival party for caring only about the rich in the cities when it held power and the listening mass shouted even louder.

Chiranjeevi is one of India's highest-paid and highest-profile movie actors. The leading light of Tollywood, the Telugu language film industry, he's made more than 100 movies in a career that has spanned three decades.

In many of his roles he plays the hero battling to protect the little man. Now he's seeking to carry that screen image into the crowded world of Indian politics.

"I want justice for the poor," the moustachioed film idol told me, standing on top of his campaign truck as we sped down the road from one stop to the next.

"For too long power in this country has been held by just a few, everyone else has been kept out, it's time that changed," he said.

He's even called his new political party, the Praja Rajyam Party - meaning People's Rule.

Behind us a line of supporters on motorbikes chased us down the road. The security men, hanging precariously from the outside of their jeeps, tried to wave them back.

Crowds leant out of the windows of buses cheering at the movie star.

"The rich in India have been getting richer, the poor have been getting poorer," Chiranjeevi explained as we ducked to avoid low power lines. "I want to make that difference less, to narrow the gap."

Wealth divide

And in modern India the differences are stark. Not far from Tirupati where he was campaigning is the city of Bangalore. It's been at the heart of India's economic boom in recent years.

Savita
Savita is having to survive as a widow after her husband committed suicide

On the edge of Bangalore, Infosys Technologies is one India's success stories, providing software services to international clients.

The leader in India's outsourcing revolution, it's grown to employ 100,000 software engineers, 20,000 work on its main campus in Bangalore alone.

The place is an oasis, manicured lawns stretch between glass office blocks, fountains play lazily as young computer programmers stroll between meetings. A glass pyramid stands in the heart of the complex.

Hitesh Sharma, 26 and not long out of university, is one of the young generation who make up the new, confident, rising India.

As we tour the campus in a golf buggy he tells me: "I believe India's future is bright. We are young, imaginative, innovative. We have an economy that has weathered the global storm. I believe India will be an economic superpower."

But it's a different world just a couple of hours drive away. There's nothing high-tech about the village of Panakanahalli. People sit listlessly in the shade to escape the midday heat, buffaloes chew lazily in the shadows, and an ox cart trundles slowly by.

Standing at the village pump, operating it by hand to fill her water pots is 28-year-old Savita. She balances her 18-month-old baby girl Meeta on her hip, while her other daughter, six-year-old Sinchana, helps carry the water back to their tiny hut.

Savita is trying to bring up both girls alone. Last year her husband Nagraj, a farm labourer, drank weedkiller and committed suicide.

Their baby Meeta was just one-month-old at the time. Burdened down by debts of around $2,000 which he could not repay, Nagraj simply gave up and killed himself.

There has been an epidemic of suicides on India's farms in recent years. Crushed by debt and poverty, an estimated 100,000 farmers and labourers have taken their lives in the past decade, many in this belt of southern India.

"This is my destiny, the life of a poor labourer, there is no one who can help me in my situation now," says Savita, sitting on the floor of her empty hut, with a photo of her dead husband looking down from the wall.

Promises

It's exactly this huge gap of living standards and expectations between rich and poor that Chiranjeevi is promising to narrow.

Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) leader Chiranjeevi on the campaign trail
Chiranjeevi makes the outcome in Andhra Pradesh hard to predict

And as we cruise through the streets of Tirupati, his adoring fans can't contain their excitement. Women line balconies along the route and shower his campaign truck with yellow flowers.

It's like rain falling from the sky. Soon the entire vehicle is covered in petals. More and more giant garlands are thrown from the crowd towards the film star. Sitting on the trucks roof I am half buried under the flowers.

Chiranjeevi grins, sweats slightly in the heat, and fixes his eye on individuals, pointing his finger at them, then gives a thumbs up sign. The crowds scream approval again. He raises both arms as if in triumph.

Exactly what impact Chiranjeevi and his party will have on India's election isn't clear. At best his party will win a handful of seats.

But that could still leave him in a strong position to influence the make-up of the government in Andhra Pradesh state, and even be a valuable ally at the national level too.

By splitting the vote between the main parties he is adding a new, unpredictable dynamic to the poll. And above all he is focusing minds on the failure of traditional politicians to do much for many of India's poor.

In this election most candidates are making promises about how they will transform the lives of the worse-off.

Some are promising cash transfers, others free colour televisions, yet more cheap rice, or free education. Poverty and development are becoming central themes of the campaign.

So in many ways Chiranjeevi's promises aren't that much distinct from his rivals. The difference is the poor have a new hero to believe in now, and he's a man they already idolise.

How he fares in the election will become clear when votes are counted on 16 May.



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