At 38, Nara Lokesh, son of Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP) former Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and grandson of matinee idol NT Rama Rao, is attempting a total makeover — from a backroom boy to street-fighter.
Ever since he failed to win his maiden election from Andhra’s Mangalagiri Assembly segment in 2019, Lokesh has found it difficult to shed the moniker of pappu – meaning incompetent in Hindi – that he earned from his rivals.
Naidu, when in power, was accused of pushing Lokesh through the Legislative Council backdoor to make him a cabinet minister in a rush to make his son the successor.
Today, as murmurs for change in the TDP leadership gain currency, Lokesh, the party general secretary, has to go by his father’s oft-repeated phrase — find an opportunity in every threat.
The threat for Lokesh is from his mighty YSR Congress (YSRC) rival and Andhra Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy, and his opportunity lies in the omissions and commissions of YSRC rule in the state ever since it wrested power from the TDP in 2019.
The other obstacle in Lokesh’s surge for power is the “young tiger of Tollywood”, his film actor cousin Jr NTR, the grandson of TDP founder NT Rama Rao.
Bogey of Jr NTR
The TDP’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Jagan Reddy in the last Andhra election exposed the leadership vacuum in the party. Naidu, during a visit to his native Kuppam constituency, soon after he lost power, was greeted by party workers with placards inviting Jr NTR. (Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao Junior) to take up the party mantle.
It caused much embarrassment to Naidu, keen as he was to promote his son as his successor.
With his star charisma, Jr NTR can breathe life into the party, feel some sections in the TDP. Naidu will turn 74 by the time Andhra will go for the next election in 2024, and he may find it hard to face a powerful rival by that time and steer the TDP out of its current moribund state, they opine.
Lokesh, against this backdrop, is apparently out to dispel such notions. A couple of his public shows in August — the protest over the murder of a Dalit engineering student in broad daylight in Guntur district, and the inept handling of the alleged rape and murder case of a Muslim girl in Kurnool district — saw him in combative mode, providing a glimmer of hope that he can fit the bill.
His action-packed roadshows and displays of aggressiveness in verbal attacks on the Jagan Reddy government, backed by a massive public response, have lifted the sagging morale of workers.
In his bid for an image makeover, Lokesh, to begin with, underwent a change in his appearance as well: he lost weight, sported a beard and a marked change in body language as well.
Daunting task ahead
The huge turnouts witnessed at Lokesh’s recent rallies indicate that some sections have begun to feel disheartened under YSRC rule.
Farooq Shibli, leader of Muslim Hakkula Parirakshana Samithi, told The Federal that Muslims, considered a solid vote bank for Jagan’s party, have been feeling insecure after frequent attacks, murders and sexual assaults on Muslim women and Jagan’s “proximity” with the BJP government at the Centre.
Similarly, a spurt in attacks has left Dalits disappointed as well. The feeling of disenchantment is also brewing in industry circles due to hate politics, a middle-class fed up with freebies doled out to the poor, and government employees distressed over denial of revision of salaries in line with the Pay Commission recommendations.
Yet, all these factors won’t alone help Lokesh in his mission.
Big challenges await him; the key being to get out of his father’s shadow and create a space for himself as a leader with fire in his belly. Naidu, after all, demonstrated the will and grit to come out of the shadow of his mentor NT Rama Rao when he parted ways with the latter in the infamous August coup of 1995.
Unlike Lokesh, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Naidu, with a middle-class agricultural background, rose in politics with no godfather around and with sheer hard work, acumen and planning. He has to his credit the tag of longest-serving CM of the state.
To grow like his father, Lokesh needs to manage the senior leaders, who are tough nuts to crack. Jagan Reddy meticulously side-lined his father’s close followers such as KVP Ramachandra Rao, Vundavalli Arunkumar and Dharmana Prasada Rao and developed his own clique in his party. Naidu also consciously nullified the NTR factor in his party gradually, by keeping aside the latter’s aides.
Besides, Lokesh, who has earned a Master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University, needs to improve his Telugu dialect and diction. Spontaneity and natural flavour are still missing from his public speeches, despite having been trained by Telugu University professor Peddi Rama Rao.
The spectra of Jr NTR looms large over Lokesh’s fortunes. He is no match for the film star in pulling the crowds and making them spell-bound.
‘Inaccessible to seniors’
Lokesh has to gain acceptance from his party seniors who were his father’s contemporaries in politics. There is growing discontentment among senior TDP leaders that they have failed to get an audience from the party general secretary despite waiting for hours.
Six-time TDP MLA Gorantla Butchaiah Chowdary, who has been with the party since its founding days, was one of the leaders who raised such criticism.
Yet, some others are not so eager to judge Naidu’s son. “We have to wait and see. It’s too early to judge the performance of Lokesh as a leader or if he can connect to the people. He has hardly made public appearances after his defeat in Mangalagiri,” Nagarjuna University former Vice-Chancellor K. Viyanna Rao told The Federal.
Lokesh, who long grew under the shade of his father with hardly any mass contact, may yet have to be a foot soldier in the future like his rival Jagan, who undertook a marathon 3,648-km padayatra while in Opposition in Andhra, which paid his party rich dividends in the 2019 elections.
A source close to Lokesh did not rule out the prospect of such a landmark mass contact programme by the Naidu scion in the days to come. “It may be a cycle yatra or padayatra. Surely, he will launch either of them sooner or later to reach out to the people to expose Jagan’s misrule,” the source said.