Amit Shah vs Prashant Kishor: Who will be wizard for forthcoming Bihar elections?

Firstpost, 20 July 2015

The forthcoming assembly election in Bihar is arguably the most important state election during Narendra Modi’s tenure as prime minister. Bihar’s result will have an impact on the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017. If the BJP is unable to fly its flag in Patna and Lucknow, it will have frittered away the chance to reap long-term benefits from the Modi wave of 2014.

The election will also be a litmus test for Amit Shah whose reputation as an electoral wizard has been dented considerably by the gargantuan AAP victory in Delhi. With so much at stake, the man in the BJP crosshairs, however, is not even a member of the JD(U).

A day before party president Amit Shah kicked off the Bhartiya Janata Party’s campaign in Patna, its senior most Bihar leader leader Sushil Modi accused Prashant Kishor of directly influencing  district magistrates to help with the publicity campaign for the ruling Janata Dal (United).

Kishor, a key behind-the-scenes figure of the Narendra Modi election campaign in 2014, raised many an eyebrow when he switched sides to Nitish Kumar. That’s quite a fence to jump. Janata Dal (United) broke  its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2013 solely because Modi as a prime ministerial candidate wasn’t acceptable to Nitish Kumar.

So why did Kishor choose one of Modi’s most bitter and fierce opponents? To help Nitish Kumar win Bihar, yes, but also score a critical point over Amit Shah. This election is as important for his career path as that of Nitish. Success has many fathers. If Nitish becomes chief minister, Prashant Kishor’s model of electioneering will be seen as indispensable. Moreover, the debate over how much credit Kishor’s Citizens for Accountable Governance should take for the Modi campaign, will tilt in his favour — and away from Amit Shah.

The CAG effect

The reason why Prashant Kishor matters, and why you will hear his name more often as the Bihar election approaches, is that the CAG did a remarkable job with the Modi campaign. It is well known that Modi’s ‘chai pe charcha’ and the 3D hologram rallies and were the CAG’s brainchild. Former members of the CAG tell me that behind the scenes, the CAG did much more than that.

Former CAG members this writer spoke to, said the CAG collected and crunched different kinds of big data to come up with the right Lok Sabha candidate, though its recommendations were one amongst many that Modi and Shah considered. It had one call centre only for fundraising, which got into some controversy because they used the CAG logo at some point.

While Twitter and Facebook are the faces of social media campaigning, most of its social media focus was Whatsapp. Technology entrepreneur Rajesh Jain’s collection of phone numbers of people sympathetic to the Modi campaign (through those missed calls) was used to bombard those numbers with daily visual messages via Whatsapp. Modi’s speeches across the country had talking points from the CAG, based on feedback from where he was going to address the rally. The Statue of Unity project, which collected iron from people across the country to build a Sardar Patel statue, was the CAG’s idea. Modi sat through many of these strategy meetings of the CAG for hours, and was particularly impressed by the hologram idea.

The CAG’s core group of members kept expanding throughout the election. By the end of the election they numbered were 672, apart from the thousands of their volunteers spread across the states.

Breaking up with the BJP

Former associates of Kishor, who worked with the CAG, say Kishor felt he didn’t getting his due in Modi government. He declined a post in the Prime Minister’s office as he felt he deserved better. Kishor and his Citizens for Accountable Governance had hoped to be given a high-profile role in policymaking and implementation in the new government. However, the BJP felt that Kishor had become too big for his boots, and such a role would risk his taking away too much credit for the 2014 victory. The Economic Times quotes a source close to Amit Shah as saying that the CAG’s work has been exaggerated. (Despite this falling out with the party, Kishor is said to maintain regular contact with the prime minister.)

The reason for this insecurity came primarily from the way in which Kishor and CAG worked with the Modi campaign. Kishor was so close to the Gujarat chief minister that he lived with Modi in his official residence in Gandhinagar . His body, the CAG, made decisions small and big that BJP leaders and workers had to follow.

The division of labour between the BJP and CAG was clear. The BJP, led by Amit Shah, worked on electoral strategies down to the booth level, doing much of the traditional work that it takes to win an election. Behind the scenes however, Kishor and his team were acting as force multipliers, packaging and branding Modi in a presidential style election.

Yet, despite such influence on the party, Kishor wouldn’t join the BJP, and the CAG remained an external body. If Narendra Modi had continued working with the CAG, it could have created a parallel structure to the BJP party apparatus, and would thus have created great resentment in the party. BJP President Amit Shah owes his elevation as BJP president to the credit accorded to him for the election win, and Shah’s camp seemed to feel threatened by Kishor.

The battle between Shah and Kishor playing out in Bihar is about more than just personal rivalry. This is a clash of two different models of electioneering: The old-fashioned party loyalist and the professional campaign manager.

The Prashant Kishor model

As he did for Modi, Prashant Kishor has set up a body for the Nitish campaign, called I-PAC, the India Political Action Committee. It has hundreds of members, divided across several teams, working like a corporate machine. I-PAC members dress in black, a move darker from the blue kurtas CAG members wore.

The singularly important factor in winning an election in India is building the “hawa” – the popular perception that this party is likely to win. Prashant Kishor’s method uses data, technology, branding and marketing techniques for hawa-building. Already for the Nitish campaign, there’s “parcha pe charcha” (discussion over pamphlets), 400 trucks with LED monitors and other gizmos are organizing 40,000 village meetings across Bihar. Nitish has launched a “Badh Chala Bihar – 2025” campaign, the subtle message of which is that he has a long-term vision for Bihar’s development.

Hoardings across Patna are emphasising that the main issue in this election is whether you are with or against Nitish, just as the Modi campaign did in 2014. Nitish is going from house to house to campaign, as you’d expect in election time, but the practice has been given a catchphrase, “Har Ghar Dastak”, reminiscent of catchphrases used in the Modi campaign (“Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi”). Just as there was the “Bal Narendra” comic, there is “Munna se Nitish”. All of these have the Prashant Kishor stamp on them.

No country for Prashant Kishors?

Kishor is a former United Nations official who wants to work with politicians on policy issues and is ideologically agnostic. He began working with Modi on policy, but soon got drafted into the task of winning the 2012 Gujarat assembly election, and then 2014. Now he has been recruited to work that same magic for Nitish Kumar in Bihar, but the outcome, even if Nitish wins, may not be all that different for Kishor.

Coomi Kapoor writes in The Indian Express , “Kishor and his team are keeping tabs on all of Kumar’s ministers to make sure they are actually hitting the campaign trail. Kishor’s army of youth dressed in black keeps checking on the locations of senior JD(U) leaders through mobile phone.” This is bound to make party leaders unhappy in the long run.

Kishor’s CAG is driven by one of the key ideas of the Obama campaign, which was to convert online campaigning into on-ground action. A prime example of this theory was “Chai pe Charcha”. After Obama came to power in 2012, OFA transformed into Organising for America, the purpose of which was to mobilise public opinion in favour of Obama’s policies. The experience of the CAG after the elections has turned out to be different than that of Obama for America, because India is not a presidential system, where candidates run as individuals, with party acting primarily as a support system. No Indian leader is allowed to run a completely independent and permanent campaign outside of the party purview.

It is unlikely that the JD(U) will be any different from the BJP. Parties cannot outsource campaigning in the long run. The only solution, however remote, is to transform themselves into the kind of machines that Kishor’s CAG was, or I-PAC is today.

Since the BJP gave up on the CAG and it became defunct, some of its key members have joined other political parties, including the Congress, the DMK and the Aam Aadmi Party. Some have gone back to their old careers, disillusioned that they didn’t get to aid policy work with the new government. It remains to be seen where Kishor will end up.

In the end, a Narendra Modi needs Amit Shah more than Prashant Kishor. Elections come and go, but a party can only rely on the loyalty of its own leaders. Its relations with external consultants, no matter how brilliant, will be transactional.

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