Relearning Indian politics, the Prashant Kishor way
The former UN staffer’s backroom manoeuvres have resulted in poll victories for both his bosses so far
New Delhi: In the 16th general election, there was only one hero—Narendra Modi. And in the afterglow was Amit Shah. In the shadows, in the backroom, to be precise, was another claimant to the audacious victory inspired by Modi—Prashant Kishor.
And in the euphoria following the win, he was all but forgotten.
A year later, Kishor, 38, who walked out of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) backroom, is in the limelight again. The spectacular political comeback of Lalu Prasad has been overshadowed by Kishor in his role as the meticulous planner behind the Grand Alliance’s massive win in the Bihar assembly election.
Keen not to make the same mistake as the BJP by ignoring Kishor in the moment of victory, incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar posed for a photograph with him, as the results started coming in. The picture was soon viral on the social media, even before the final verdict.
The victory was sweet for both Kumar and Kishor. For Kumar, defeating his rival has evened the score with Prime Minister Modi, who served him a drubbing in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
For Kishor, it was an “I-told-you-so” moment; a reminder to Modi, with whom he had worked in 2014 and in the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections, that he was indeed missed in the backroom as BJP stumbled to a humiliating defeat.
After Bihar, Kishor has acquired the aura of a kingmaker. He is now a sought-after strategist—Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, and chief minister of West Bengal, has reportedly reached out to him, as has Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
That’s a big turnaround for a man who, a year-and-a-half ago, would have likely prompted the question: “Kishor who?”
Prashant Kishor’s political journey began in 2010 with an invitation for coffee. He was a public health activist heading a United Nations aid mission in Chad, West Africa, and had prepared a paper documenting economic prosperity and malnutrition in India. The paper reportedly was sent to then prime minister Manmohan Singh, it caught the attention of Narendra Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat, who sought the coffee meeting. The meeting ended with Kishor joining Modi’s team.
What started out as a job offer to work on health policies for the Gujarat government evolved into an important political role as he slowly emerged as one of Modi’s chief poll strategists for the 2012 Gujarat election.
“Kishor was working out of the chief minister’s house eventually. It was he who came up with the idea of Modi’s famous 3D rallies in which holograms of the chief minister were used at multiple locations; 54 rallies were conducted simultaneously,” says Vinesh Chandel, a close associate of Kishor. Chandel is also a director of the Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC),a body headed by Kishor that spearheaded Nitish’s victorious campaign in Bihar.
The lessons of 2012 Gujarat election were applied to the 2014 general election with even more spectacular results. From Modi’s selfie to chai pe charcha, Kishor is reported to have played a role in several campaign initiatives that helped the leader fashion a majority for the BJP.
The team that Kishor headed then was called Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG). It rankled Kishor that he never really got his due. “The truth is that Kishore did not get credit for his work with CAG. There were also political differences with a very senior BJP leader, and it was then that Kishor decided to part ways,” says an associate, requesting anonymity.
Kishor, the son of a doctor and a housewife, never really had any intention of being associated with politics, say people who know him well.
“It just happened; no one plans such things. He was in no way associated with politics before Modi reached out to him. He keeps getting asked whether he realizes how successful he has become, and he feels it’s for others to know, not for him to say anything,” says a colleague who asked not to be identified.
Sidelined by the BJP, Kishor reached out to Nitish Kumar.
“We moved to Patna early this year for the poll preparations,” says Chandel. The “we” in question was a core team of 30 members; some of them would get to travel back home only after the poll results were declared on 8 November.
Using a team of 800+ volunteers spread across the state, Kishor launched a campaign featuring catchy slogans, such as “Bihar mein bahaar ho, Nitish Kumar ho” (Let there be prosperity in Bihar, let there be Nitish Kumar in Bihar) and which harnessed power of social media to rebut claims made by the BJP.
Kishor is known for his political instincts and has the ability to use his opponent’s words to his advantage. When Modi made his now infamous “something wrong with his political DNA” remark about Kumar, the campaign turned it on its head by making it out to be an insult to all Biharis. Voters were encouraged to send their DNA samples to Delhi.
“He is very quick, very sharp and always open to ideas. It was Kishor who sent a team to villages to tell them how the prime minister had insulted Bihar. He leaves no stone unturned to understand the pulse of the people. It was through his feedback system and surveys that Kishor’s team understood what was lacking and what were the people’s expectations,” says Sanjay Gandhi, a senior Janata Dal (United) leader and party’s chief whip in the outgoing legislative council.
His working style demands proximity with his boss. With both Modi and Kumar, Kishor ended up setting up his office in their official residences.
Over the past few years, Indian politics has seen the trend of engineers, doctors and corporate executives managing or working on campaigns. The growing importance of technology and surveys has resulted in politicians across parties making a beeline for technocrats.
Kishor’s core team includes graduates from premier institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management. There is, however, a criterion everyone is required to meet: Kishor makes sure they have never been associated with a political party.
“He does so because he feels it is easy to mould minds that have no preconceived notions. If they belong to a political party, then the neutrality goes away. Kishor says he picks people who are exceptionally talented in whichever field they have chosen to be in, people who learn from the job quickly,” says the associate quoted above.
“The challenges here (Bihar) were different from Gujarat, and even those faced during the national elections. We altered our strategy keeping in mind the local needs,” Kishor was quoted by The Times of India, a day after the Bihar election results.
The professionals have given rise to a new beast in Indian politics—a campaign strategist who is a student of “the science of election”, as political analyst P.K. Dutta describes it. According to him, elections were at one time managed either by a political party’s cell or by a single leader.
“It was Rajiv Gandhi who started the trend of a point person to manage campaigns.” That phenomenon is now here to stay.
“In a way, the importance of people like Prashant Kishor cannot be underestimated; their role becomes even more important because of the rise of the new media. There is a generation gap happening with politicians (who have to deal with a predominantly young electorate) and campaign strategists with their understanding of the new voter help reduce that gap,” says Dutta.
Even then, the Bihar election was a benchmark for the new breed of backroom boys.
S.L. Rao, economist and member of the Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru, feels that Kishor took a leaf out of US President Barack Obama’s campaign, which involved an intensive voter reach-out, with campaigns aimed at issues that mattered to each segment.
“Kishor too developed strategies for different constituencies but he is not the one who had to make speeches, he is not the one who has to strike an emotive chord with the voters and that doesn’t happen by just crunching numbers. To do so, you need to be a politician like Lalu, like Nitish. Kishor is a backroom boy who has fed strategies to the politicians. But how leaders used them was entirely their prerogative.”
According to a person close to Kishor, who did not want to be identified, the wunderkind sees his role as a campaign strategist as that of someone who brings a method to the madness. “A strategist does not decide who wins or loses, Kishor believes. According to him, elections are a celebration of democracy and people like him add method to it.”
In Modi and, more recently, Kumar, the former UN staffer picked a frontrunner skilled in politics. He can cement his place in the evolving pantheon of Indian politics if he takes a rank outsider and crafts the same success.
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