Our political pandit-ji: A profile of Prashant Kishor

(First published in Mumbai Mirror, 6 March 2016.)

After an incident of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib in Punjab last year, the Congress legislator for Khadoor Sahib in Taran Taran resigned. A by-poll was held. The Aam Aadmi Party, which has taken Punjab by storm, said it wouldn’t contest. The Congress party wasn’t sure if it should. What if it lost? Yet, not throwing a hat in the ring could be taken as a sign of weakness. Will Congress, won’t they, was a matter of political speculation in Punjab for many days.

This was soon after Captain Amarinder Singh, now e Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, had signed up Prashant Kishor as his campaign manager. A newspaper journalist in Chandigarh called up Kishor, who said the Congress will not contest. The reporter then called up the Captain, who said that the high command in Delhi had cleared a name, and that legislator will contest the seat. “But sir,” the reporter said, “Prashant Kishor is saying Congress will not contest.” Angry, Amarinder insisted his word be taken more seriously than his campaign manager’s.

Two days later, Amarinder held a press conference at the Chandigarh Press Club and announced that the Congress would not contest the Khadoor Sahib byelection. This was aligned with its position of protest against the desecration of the holy book, for which it blamed the Akali-BJP government.

Predictably in newspaper reports the next morning, Amarinder denied that Prashant Kishor had influenced the decision. Yet Kishor’s imprint was all over how the story played out. Firstly, Kishor works with leaders on his own terms. Secondly, he fights elections like a war. When there’s a war on in 2017, why waste time on an inconsequential battle in 2016? Whether or not the Congress might have won the byelection, doesn’t interest Kishor.

The spin master

Kishor’s first election was Gujarat 2012 for CM Modi, where he experimented with the now familiar 3D rallies, hugely popular in the 2014 campaign. In Bihar Kishor replicated much of his former strategy, but reformatted the template. He knew that while Modi had to be projected as a tech savvy leader that would not be compatible with Nitish Kumar’s image.

It’s little known that he initially advised Nitish to dump Lalu and contest alone. He knew that the BJP would exploit the fear of Lalu’s ‘Jungle Raj’ and they had the wind at their back. But the moment Modi criticised Nitish’s DNA, Kishor knew the alliance could work since now he had a diversionary peg.

Ordinary voters didn’t even know what DNA was, so the campaign—bombarding the PM with samples of ordinary people’s DNA—wasn’t about getting Biharis to vote. Its intent was to put the BJP on the back foot, by dominating headlines for long enough to cement the alliance, and get Lalu’s caste vote to bolster Nitish’s development agenda.

A former member of Kishor’s CAG explains his style, “If he needs 5,000 volunteers for a campaign, he will demand 50,000 – in just a week! You will panic and be ready to be shouted at when you have got only 10,000 and Kishor will go and tell the leader I got you double the number of volunteers you needed.”

The global guru

But what exactly does Kishor do? Surveys and data crunching? Aggressive social media marketing and Chai pe Charcha? Key aides such as Rishi Raj and Pratik Jain, drawn from elite academic institutions, with inimitable corporate experience are in charge of executing his campaigns. But the substance of what Kishor does is move like a merriweather with every political gust.

Kishor’s eight years at the UN instilled a healthy respect for ground reports. In 2013 he’d set up India’s first political action committee, based on the US model for fundraising and supporting candidates. His Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) committee handed over a handbook to BJP and RSS workers for 2014. It broke down in detail, which polling booths were not ideologically fixed, and could be especially targeted in door-to-door campaigning– focusing on the US equivalent of the swing vote. The BJP felt the lack – a party aide said, “Prashantji toh geeta le ke bhaag gaye.” It was the basis of the so-called caste-arithmetic win for Nitish-Lalu. His ‘executives’ at the CAG and now at the IPAC give daily feedback, breaking down by percentage which constituency the candidate is lagging in.

That wasn’t his only carry-over from the UN stint – as a public health official, he’d spent significant time in Bihar. learned the lay of the land. Kishor’s needs to have eyes and ears on the ground, and foot soldiers. He spent three years with PM Modi in Gujarat before the 2014 elections. For the Punjab 2017 election, the plan is to hire a corps of 500.

Like a branding expert, he obsesses over details, and personally oversees the colour and print quality of posters and banners. There was so much red in the Bihar elections it felt like Bengal –Kishor’s use of that red and yellow, replacing Nitish-Lalu’s flat party palette of white and green, was strategic. The vibrant shades connected with the poor who use them to adorn their houses, and had the added advantage of making the BJP’s vivid saffron look pale.

The eminence grise

After the 2014 elections, Kishor wanted to create a central body that would hire consultants and insert them in every ministry, at every level.

Jaitley and Amit Shah thought his ideas of privatising the bureaucracy as well as being the PM’s campaign manager would make him a sort of super CM.

When he jumped ship from Modi to Nitish Kumar, the JDU camp were wary of a heavy-weight outsider, thought he was a mole. But he had the Bihar CM’s total confidence. When he won Bihar, there was intense speculation that he was in the race for a Rajya Sabha seat, or a ministerial portfolio in Bihar. But Kishor is a behind-the-scenes election stealer.

In fact, frantic to retain Kishor, Kumar allegedly offered him whatever he wanted – and he leveraged that to create the Bihar Vikas Mission – which is exactly what he’d asked of the Modi government.

These are all stepping stones for what Kishor now wants – the 2019 Lok Sabha elections – and he’s identified the unlikely Congress party as his vehicle. To get there, he still needs Nitish Kumar, and many regional players. For the Congress to take on Modi, will need a national Mahagatbandhan.

The people’s person

His low profile, the obvious shunning of public office helps his candidates trust him. Though he was brought on by Nitish, Lalu Yadav has told his family that when he’s no longer around and the family needs political advice, they should turn to Panditji— which is how Lalu addresses Kishor. Though he shot down Kishor’s big idea of an RJD and JDU merger Lalu is reportedly so infatuated with him that he asked his sons to touch Kishor’s feet and take their election tickets from him. After the elections, Lalu called Kishor an “intellectual” to the media, perhaps the highest accolade he can offer.

Kishor even maintained his relationship with PM Modi well after he was shunted out by the insecure Jaitley and Shah. Kishor assesses Modi as a man of sharp political ideas which fall flat unless he has the right machinery to execute them, whether it’s the bureaucracy or Kishor’s CAG or RSS workers.

In retrospect it seems inevitable that Modi had to become prime minister, or that Nitish-and Lalu would win. Just as it seems a foregone conclusion that 2017 Punjab belongs to AAP and the Congress winning Uttar Pradesh is a ludicrous notion.

But the polls will cast their own verdict on Kishor.

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