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Home / Opinion / Views /  Brand Prashant Kishor and its political repercussions

In recent years, Prashant Kishor (PK) has acquired iconic status as an ace political strategist. There has been a scramble among political parties of various ideological persuasions to hire his services. Both national and regional parties have struck secret and not-so-secret deals with him and his organization, Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), in their quest for success in assembly and parliamentary elections. Though PK’s magic wand has not always worked, this seems not to affect his popularity. Very often conversations in middle-class drawing rooms veer towards his ‘genius’, as TV anchors tirelessly live-stream PK’s strategic thoughts and suggestions to handle the Trinamool Congress, Hindutva, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress, communal polarization and the like. It is rare in the history of Independent India that a management graduate without any credible political training of any kind has turned out to be such an undisputed authority—an enviable brand, so to speak—on Indian politics and its near-unfathomable complexities. It’s an era of data crunching by back-room boys and political advisors like PK who have perfected the game of bombarding voters with catchy personal messages. Not only that, his one-liners like “Bihar mein bahaar hai, Nitish Kumar hai" (Bihar’s wind is behind Nitish Kumar), for example, is credited with turning the fortunes of a declining Janata Dal (United) in that state in 2015.

The PK phenomenon, for whatever it’s worth, has made election management not only desirable and rewarding, but, unfortunately, an end in itself. Simultaneously, it has rendered politics into a simulacrum, something that the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard defines as a signification without necessarily being a copy of the original.

For PK, politics seems mostly about media spin and the launch of a few attractive government schemes preceding polls. Politics ceases to be about competing pathways to attain common aims and a democratic society. It loses its historical connect with the perpetual quest for justice and secular emancipation. It no longer converses with the multitudes whose daily struggles bring humane concerns to the political agenda. It replaces the real public and their differing interest constellations with an imaginary hyper-real audience, spectators to be swayed by bold colours on banners or captivating font sizes on glossy pamphlets. Mass struggles around real-life issues of agrarian distress, unemployment, health, education, nutrition and so forth yield to well-orchestrated media events like Chai Pe Charcha or Didi Ke Bolo. Surely, it is time we took stock of the damage done to Indian politics by all this.

First, the PK model tends to reduce politics to just gains/losses in elections. Institutions associated with politics which run through any healthy civil society are rendered irrelevant. The need for consistent debate, discussion and political mobilization on issues of everyday concern loses importance as election-time media acrobatics take precedence over them. Second, the PK approach instrumentalizes politics. Politics becomes all about entering houses of legislation. It turns into a well-played game about appearing smart, accessible and affable, and becoming a minister or an official. Any political activity which does not yield a tangible electoral outcome is seen as inefficient. Third, this model makes light of and disrupts the politics-governance loop. If elections can be won by perception management through technology-driven, media-savvy campaigns, then why worry about effective governance or the administrative articulation of a political agenda? Fourth, it does great disservice to grassroots-level workers and the rank and file of a political party. Clever PK-IPAC guys have little room for the latter, and neither the patience nor time to draw upon their accumulated political wisdom honed through years of hard work. Moreover, the usual processes of upward mobility within the party set-up get blocked as PK-IPAC sets about recommending lists of winnable candidates. This may explain resentments towards PK-IPAC in every political party it has worked with. Fifth, the PK model makes the entire notion of modern citizenship vacuous by turning citizens into mere clients. In its reckoning, the state only has to ensure the efficient delivery of services for customer/voter satisfaction. And, lastly, the PK method ends up negating the very reality of politics beyond PK-IPAC’s understanding. PK-brand politics goes by a reality of its own without even being a copy (pale or florid) of real politics as practised in much of India. This disrobes millions of their agency, as they’re viewed as puppets to be tilted one way or another.

Arguably, IPAC has been less than transparent in making the details of its workings with different political formations public. Reportedly, its team members have impersonated genuine voters to converse with a cross-section of society in, for instance, Goa’s recent assembly elections. Even otherwise, IPAC maintains a veil of secrecy over how it functions that doesn’t befit our democracy.

It is time we took a good hard look at the PK phenomenon, complete with an assessment of its ethics in practice. Politics has always had spin doctors. But their influence could gnaw away at the vitals of democracy with a shallow and reductionist vision of public life. Kishor himself seems keen to cast himself as a new-age political messiah, a new Gandhi with a new padyatra (foot campaign) to begin from Champaran in Bihar on 2 October. But the spin-led flimflam that passes for politics in India needs to be called out.

Nabanipa Bhattacharjee & Manish Thakur are, respectively, professors of sociology at the University of Delhi and IIM Calcutta Thakur

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