Srinagar, Jan 31 (PTI) He went from being the barely stubbled, dimpled politician with neat hair to the man with unkempt locks and an overgrown salt-pepper beard, the image makeover drawing comparisons with Saddam Hussein, Karl Marx and even Forrest Gump. And that one question - did Rahul Gandhi also outgrow his ‘Pappu’ image during the Bharat Jodo Yatra? The Iraqi dictator, the German philosopher and father of communism or the wide-eyed protagonist of the eponymous film “Forrest Gump”, who the Congress leader actually resembles after the end of the 145-day, 4,000 km yatra is open to debate. A day after the Kanyakumari to Kashmir campaign ended here on Monday, several experts, however, are agreed his "coming-of-age" look reflects the larger image transformation he has undergone in terms of people’s perception.
"... The beard has given him a certain degree of seriousness. He has arrived as a man, he is no longer Indira Gandhi's grandson, Rajiv Gandhi's son. He is now Rahul Gandhi, the man. That is a very critical change in how people perceive him today," Prahlad Kakkar, advertising industry veteran, told PTI.
The man dismissed by many as ‘Pappu’ - the moniker imposed by his opponents to reflect their view of him as a non-serious, political lightweight - may have actually outgrown his image as a reluctant, part-time politician and evolved to one who is mature and taken seriously.
Many may argue with the stereotypes of both images he had - the pre-yatra image and the one he acquired as the march progressed -- but that is the thing with images. They tend to stick irrespective of whether they represent the reality or not.
Image experts also say the former Congress president’s new bearded look may be part of a conscious effort to send out a message.
Rohit Ohri, CEO of media firm FCB Group India, said the Bharat Yodo Yatra was Gandhi's big "makeover act" and his scruffy beard a symbol of this makeover.
"As a symbol it stands for... the new wisdom of age, the hard labour of the prince, the nation-before-self belief and the tough never-say-die spirit," Ohri told PTI.
That Gandhi showed stamina and resilience through the Kanyakumari to Kashmir cross-country campaign, walking about 20-25 km each day, also lent itself to the end of the ‘pappufication’, said political watchers.
"People did not think Rahul Gandhi had the stamina and bandwidth to see the yatra through. So, because he has had it easy, he has inherited it and not earned it, this Bharat Jodo Yatra was very important for his image makeover as finally he had to earn his stripes," Kakkar said.
All politicians have realised there are no easy shortcuts to votes... it is all very well to pontificate and be holier than thou but unless you hit the road and put in the sweat and blood, people will not be moved, he argued.
Gandhi - who was seen in a white T-shirt for almost the entire duration of the yatra except for the last day when he donned a Kashmiri ‘pheran’ to ward off the cold -- has managed to surprise everyone by seeing the yatra through, Kakkar said.
He termed Gandhi's look as "coming-of-age", saying he has gone from a boy to a man by sporting a beard. "The moustache and the beard have always been revered as an arrival of manhood in our country...
"Because of the avatar he has taken up, the BJP is trying to counter his dialogue. They would not have attempted it earlier because they had dismissed him as a Pappu. The fact is that if your enemy regards you as a serious contender then you have achieved 90 per cent of what you had gone out to achieve," the adman said.
Going forward, Gandhi needs to make a new beginning with a "clean slate" and start by apologising for the mistakes his party had committed when in power.
The key question will be to-shave-or-not-to-shave now that the yatra has ended, Kakkar said.
"I believe this beard is here to stay and with it is the grand old party's desperate hope that this makeover is forever," Ohri added.
According to Suman Agarwal, co-founder of Image Consulting Business Institute, the new look adopted by Gandhi is strategic dressing in the language of image management.
"His intent is to break the stereotypical image of a politician and get a new look. Our new generation believes in living on their own terms, a little unkempt and imperfect look depicting that 'I have more important things to focus on'," she told PTI.
"He (Gandhi) wants people to look at him with a fresh perspective and it is a smart strategy to change the way one dresses," Agarwal said.
Gandhi's visual communication is different, more informal, relaxed and much more flexible, she said.
The Congress leader has undergone an image makeover by changing the way he looks and he wants to project that "he is mature, serious, different and clearly means business", Agarwal said, adding that appearance plays a vital role in perception management.
To what extent this new look will help him achieve his goals is yet to be seen, added the image expert.
The former Congress chief has himself acknowledged the change in his image perception.
Addressing a press conference in Jammu, Gandhi had said thousands of crores of rupees have been pumped in by the BJP and the RSS systematically to distort his image but the truth always comes out.
Congress general secretary in-charge communications Jairam Ramesh, said to be the driving force behind the yatra along with senior leader Digvijaya Singh, has repeatedly said the BJP's bid to distort Gandhi's image stands demolished with the yatra.
The real Rahul Gandhi has emerged from the yatra, not a new one, Ramesh often insists when asked about the image makeover.
Whether Rahul Gandhi's image makeover can be sustained after the yatra would depend on his perseverance and politics. For the moment, however, it does seem that the days of his 'pappufication' by the BJP are behind him. PTI ASK MIN MIN MIN