Rise of the phoenix,” tweeted Karthik Garikapati, a TDP supporter along with a picture of Nara Lokesh where he is seen clenching his fist. The photo was from when Lokesh, the son of Chandrababu Naidu, was arrested when he went to meet the family of a Dalit girl murdered in broad daylight in Guntur. The tweet aptly describes the current emotion of Telugu Desam Party (TDP) supporters.
When YS Jagan Mohan Reddy hired poll strategist Prashant Kishor for his 2019 Assembly elections campaign, the latter successfully managed to ramp up Jagan’s image to Jagan ‘anna’. It severely dented the chances of the TDP. Kishor and his team also managed to reduce Lokesh to the subject of political ridicule, a strategy already tested in national politics.
Multiple memes on Lokesh began doing social media rounds, from body shaming him to mocking his speech. Jagan’s YSR Congress Party came to power with a thumping majority and the TDP was effectively written off as long as it projected Lokesh as its face. His devastating defeat in Mangalagiri added insult to injury.
It was even surmised by political pundits that Chandrababu Naidu should have handed over TDP’s reins to Lokesh’s cousin and actor Junior NTR. Many started jumping ship and those who stayed back in the TDP had given up hope. By the time Covid hit the world, Nara Lokesh had almost withdrawn from the public eye, confined to his house in Hyderabad.
By May 2020, Lokesh’s fortunes began changing. He dropped 20 kg, became aggressive, feisty and more visible. YSRCP leaders tried to make light of this transformation but weren’t prepared for Lokesh’s changed attitude.
Lokesh went from being completely inaccessible to calling the cadre directly. He would rush to the police when a TDP member was arrested. The biggest image booster came when he fought for cancellation of Class 10 board exams during the second wave of Covid-19. It put Jagan in a fix since he couldn’t straightway cancel the exams to hand Lokesh a win, but couldn’t postpone the decision for long either in the face of anxious students and parents.
He tried to sell the exams as essential for children’s future but had to concede when the Supreme Court said his government would be responsible if anything goes wrong. Nara Lokesh scored a point. He scored another when floods hit the state and he drove a tractor to meet affected farmers and courted arrest.
Lokesh’s speeches also underwent a tonal change, reflecting more sarcasm. In stark contrast, Jagan rarely leaves his chambers and prefers releasing recorded speeches to the media instead of holding press conferences.
“Failure is the best teacher and Lokesh’s loss in 2019 elections got him to introspect, work on shortcomings like public speaking. He is also visibly trying to work on his mass connect. He was always very helpful to the cadre but this new avatar is giving the cadre much-needed belief in party leadership,” says political observer Mahishma Kodidela.
She, however, adds, “It is still a long road ahead for the TDP. The party needs to work on catching the public pulse. Lokesh right now is taking up relevant issues like students’ exams, job notifications and women’s safety. He has his finger firmly on the public pulse but it needs to be so for every breathing moment for the party.”
Lokesh also seems to be focusing on flagship initiatives of Jagan’s government like the Disha Act and Disha app. He has been demanding that killers of 22-year-old Dalit girl Ramya be punished under the Disha Act, which provides for death penalty for grave atrocities on women and speeding up trials of such offences within 21 days.
“Lokesh started his transformation process long back. He takes interest in everything that is said about him and works on those aspects. He would openly discuss it with leaders like me. He took our feedback and started working on them. Previously, he had speech writers who would give him a script and Lokesh would read it out. Today, every speech you hear is his own,” says senior TDP leader Kommareddy Pattabhi Ram.
“Previously, he had inhibitions about himself. He was conscious about his body language. The moment he let go of them, he is a new person. Earlier, he only used to wear formal shoes. Today, he wears chappals, and he shared with me how comfortable he feels with this small change. One thing that no one can take away from Lokesh is his will to fight. Cadre and leaders are all very happy now,” he adds.
Lokesh, however, may have more catching up to do. “No doubt Nara Lokesh is emerging as a promising leader in Andhra Pradesh politics. His real potential was not seen by his party men or his opponents. CM Jagan Mohan Reddy is always ready to face any situation to protect his cadre. Lokesh is still not there. He is currently surrounded by a group of young people who probably don’t understand politics as the seasoned leaders do. Nara Lokesh needs a team of his own which should be a combination of young dynamic leaders and experienced, open minded advisors,” says Kolikapudi Srinivas, leader of Amaravathi Parirakshana Samithi JAC.
But observers agree that in his new avatar, Nara Lokesh has given the TDP a fighting chance against Jagan Mohan Reddy.