Hyderabad: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader Nara Lokesh may be 13 years apart in age but they have more than one thing in common. Both are dynasts. Both are de facto party chiefs, although their parents hold the reins. In opposition, both are fighting to shed their ‘Pappu image’, created by their political adversaries.
Nara Lokesh, 38, former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s son, however, has an advantage. Unlike Gandhi, the young TDP leader has proven experience and acumen as an administrator and he is more than willing to sweat it out on the ground. Lokesh is now working on an image makeover — from a clean-shaven look to a stubble, switching to chappals from shoes, and brushing up his Telugu.
He has also managed to lose 24 kg in the past two years.
According to his team, over the past six months at least, they have been working on rebuilding the perception surrounding the young leader.
A top focus area is forging a better connect with people on the ground and building his image as a “mass leader”, an internal strategist told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity. His image has been different so far, the strategist added.
Nara Lokesh is a Stanford University alum who held the IT ministry — besides panchayati raj and rural development — during his father’s tenure as Andhra Pradesh CM (2014-2019).
His daily schedule as IT minister mostly involved interactions in plush air-conditioned rooms with corporate representatives.
In his new turn, he has been hitting the roads and going door-to-door in an attempt to establish himself as a leader on the ground. The polished shoes of yore have given way to a pair of slippers, and photos from his visits to cyclone-hit areas show him wading through inundated fields with his trousers rolled up.
“He was going to villages, he had to look approachable and obviously that would not have happened with his previous attire,” Hyderabad-based image consultant Chaithanya Ch, whose first project with Lokesh is this image makeover, told ThePrint.
“So, we made him wear chappals over shoes. He always used to be clean-shaven before — but we suggested a rugged look for that mass appeal. There were changes made to his dressing also. We made sure he looked rugged but well in control, we wanted to give a message to people that he is in control of the situation,” she added.
The level of detailing went down to the edges of his shirts.
“Even his shirts, we made sure they did not have curved lines at the edges but sharp straight lines. We suggested shirts that presented a linear image of his — that shows him as aggressive. Curved edges do not. His weight loss just boded well with the styling,” she said.
A source close to the leader said Lokesh has lost about 24 kg over the last two years.
Speaking to ThePrint, Lokesh acknowledged the makeover. It is a “global phenomenon”, he said, that “physical changes do make an impact”.
“Aggression is the same but people seem to change their perception when your physical image is changed. I was trolled for a lot of things by Opposition leaders, body-shaming was also part of that,” he added, saying he now pays special attention to his ‘Telugu slang’ in speeches.
The Pappu chorus
Lokesh became the TDP general secretary in 2014. He joined the Andhra Pradesh legislature as a member of the Legislative Council (upper house) in 2017 for a six-year term, and served as state minister until 2019.
He made his election debut in that year’s assembly polls from Mangalagiri, but lost to the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSR Congress by over 5,000 votes. The TDP had not won that seat since 1985.
It was during the 2019 election that the ‘Pappu’ chorus grew louder, with Lokesh earning the moniker ‘Andhra’s Pappu’ during the campaign. The idea was to portray Lokesh as ignorant, a campaign Rahul Gandhi has had to deal with at the national level.
Y.S. Sharmila, Andhra Chief Minister Jagan’s sister who campaigned for him during the 2019 polls, came out with a slogan that gained deep popularity during the campaign. It was “Bye bye Babu (Chandrababu Naidu) and bye bye Pappu”.
“In 2019, Lokesh’s Telugu was also made fun of by Opposition leaders, they said it is not fluent, he kind of stutters or he is unable to pronounce a few words with the slang — correcting all these will also help when he goes to the masses and talks to them,” said the anonymous strategist quoted before. “Ultimately, they need to feel that he is one among them.”
‘TDP was overconfident people would remember schemes’
One of the primary factors believed to have generated anti-incumbency against the erstwhile Chandrababu Naidu government is the focus on the proposed ‘Amaravati’ capital city, meant to replace Hyderabad in light of Andhra’s bifurcation in 2014.
The chief minister promised to make a ‘world-class’ smart city similar to Singapore, but the project barely took off. Lack of infrastructure development in the new state and creation of jobs were among other complaints for the urban sector.
Naidu, who was touted to be a corporate CM, is also believed to have lost appeal among rural voters on account of the focus on Amaravati, which some thought was at the expense of villages.
Meanwhile, Jagan’s key campaigning strategy was a ‘padayatra’ — a mega 3,000-km walkathon across the state where he went door-to-door with promises of welfare schemes.
The TDP won all of 23 seats in the assembly election, with Jagan — son of the late former chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy — scoring a landslide with 151 of 175 seats.
Lokesh, however, dismisses the criticism of his father’s government, saying it managed to set up South Korean firm Kia Motors’ first Indian plant in the state.
“The government was too busy implementing schemes and did not connect with people on the ground. And in that vacuum — the Opposition party leaders managed to penetrate and do their politics,” Lokesh said. “The TDP was overconfident that people would remember schemes and vote, and I think that’s why we lost the election.”
Lokesh is also planning a padayatra now — sometime in the year preceding the 2024 assembly election, the anonymous strategist added.
In August, Lokesh visited the family of a 20-year old Dalit girl in Guntur who was brutally killed by an alleged social media acquaintance, in a murder caught on CCTV. In the following days, he paid a visit to the family of a Muslim girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted and killed in Kurnool district last year.
“The image of him in AC rooms has to go and people should identify him as the mass leader. For that, we are making sure he is more on the ground, visits families, takes up issues and participates in ground movements. That is our focus now,” the strategist added.
Lokesh said the party is now focusing on putting the “younger generation” leaders at the forefront. Ever since the pandemic started in 2020, party chief Naidu has largely been interacting with the leaders online.
When asked if he is in line to take over the party reins from his father, 71, Lokesh said there’s “still time”. The party focus right now “is to support our leader”, he added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)