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What’s Going Wrong with Prashant Kishor?

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A political strategist loses his sheen

He used to wear tight jeans and T-shirts until last year, when he traded it for the typical neta get-up of spotless white kurta pyjama. Then, as now, he has had an air of self-importance about him. For a United Nations health official who befriended then Chief Minister Narendra Modi ahead of Gujarat’s 2012 Assembly elections, Prashant Kishor would soon win the trust of the BJP strongman and earn himself name, fame and success over the next two years in the run-up to the high-wattage campaign for the 2014 General Election. Suddenly, the idea of a poll strategist acquired a new meaning, and Kishor, who by his own confession is a Brahmin from Buxar, Bihar, found—or rather projected—himself in the league of presidential spinmeisters of the US such as David Axelrod and Joel Benenson.

Kishor has won praise for the meticulous execution of whatever he’s been assigned to do, especially for his leadership of the strangely titled CAG, Citizens for Accountable Governance, which brought together young management graduates and techies to manage data and coordinate major election campaigns (mainly via the web but also offline). After Modi’s resounding victory in 2014, Kishor emerged as a wunderkind of sorts, a strategist who had steered the leader’s ambitious, hi-tech war room, one that had no parallel in Indian electoral history. In the months before the win, Kishor’s easy access to the Chief Minister’s Office in Gandhinagar had been the talk of the town. That the cautious Modi was on such friendly terms with him took many by surprise. Kishor made the most of it. He walked around key offices of Gandhinagar, flexing muscle with an air of studied indifference, his casuals making no effort to conceal his squat gym physique.

In hindsight, it is safe to say that Kishor’s ‘reign’ of sorts began around the time when current BJP President Amit Shah was banished from the state during the erstwhile UPA regime at the Centre, and that his influence over Modi began to wane with Shah’s return to the scheme of things around the newly elected Prime Minister in mid-2014. Soon, Kishor would find his access to Modi restricted, leaving him and his team of cheerful brainiacs in the lurch. Much to his despair, BJP leaders, who used to look up to him with awe for his proximity to Modi, read the new party chief’s mind and began to refer to him as a ‘vendor’, one who was good at his job, as some would grudgingly grant.

Kishor, who had by then acquired a halo and began carping that things were ‘not going as planned’, perhaps felt shortchanged. In private chats, he had started grumbling that the Modi Government was not delivering on the pre-poll promises of what he claimed was a presidential sort of campaign. While he had indeed worked hard for the victory, RSS workers at the grassroots had operated like a well-oiled machine, too. But he spoke as if he had a special claim to the credit; Modi, he began telling colleagues and journalists, wasn’t living up to his expectations.

Exaggerated self-importance doesn’t do anyone any good, a senior BJP leader would tell scribes. Within a party known for flushing out ‘irritants’ at the first sign of trouble, Kishor now found the going increasingly tough. Shah’s increasing clout also meant a ruthless ejection of ideas he considered incompatible with the party’s image. It didn’t help that Kishor had run down the cyber cell that handled a part of the poll war room, and antagonised several leaders with his ‘attitude problem’, as they described it.

Accustomed to throwing his weight around in the days when he was Modi’s blue-eyed boy, Kishor knew it was time to look for greener pastures. “He was a vendor, and his work was done by the time the elections were over. There was no point in expecting the BJP to do anything for him other than paying him his money promptly,” says a senior minister, adding that it was a highly expensive campaign.

Complaints began to surface about mismanagement of the previous campaign led by Kishor. Of course, he had meticulously planned and executed Modi’s hologram and ‘Chai pe Charcha’ campaigns. That Modi was projected as a development messiah or a moderniser was par for the course, thanks to the attention that the Gujarat model of development had received, said party critics doing a post-mortem of the campaign, but a contrived minority outreach was not.

For someone as politically ambitious as Kishor, the indifference of the ruling party that headed the coalition at the Centre was a rude shock and a setback on both the professional and personal fronts.

Kishor was looking for new options when he ran into Pavan K Varma. The suave Janata Dal-United (JD-U) leader introduced Kishor to a man who needed someone to hardsell his unblemished image in an election the leader correctly considered a do-or-die battle against the might of someone he disliked but had become extremely powerful over the past year.

Sheila Dikshit was not Kishor’s choice as the CM candidate in UP. And for state party president, he had pitched Pramod Tiwari, but the high command named actor-turned-politician Raj Babbar instead

Nitish Kumar was that leader, and he was up against Modi. Both had several similarities.

Modi had become the darling of a section of the masses by 2013, and he was unstoppable by all accounts. Even the paterfamilias of the BJP, LK Advani himself couldn’t persuade the RSS or key members of the BJP to pitch him as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. In a humiliating setback, the man who had led some of the BJP’s most successful campaigns to expand its presence and had once mentored Modi had to yield to the rising appeal of his former protégé. “Modiji was someone we always were looking for. And finally such a person, a strong Hindu leader emerged out of the blue,” a senior RSS leader had told Open in Varanasi weeks before the elections of 2014.

Nitish Kumar, too, had winds blowing in his favour. As someone who had snapped ties with the BJP over his opposition to naming Modi as the top candidate of the NDA, which he was part of for a long time, the Bihar Chief Minister had a lot to lose, but he had a reputation to brandish as a do-gooder and an anti- corruption crusader. In a major realignment of forces in the history of Bihar, he also tried what was once considered impossible: to join hands with Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), a man he had bitterly fought to achieve power, the leader he had waged a battle against over corruption, someone who had been flayed for the ‘unmaking of Bihar’. As former comrades in the JP Movement of the 1970s, both were close allies for decades until Nitish found himself increasingly sidelined by the extremely pro-Yadav slant within the Janata Dal in the 1990s. He had first floated the Samata Party with the help of veteran politician George Fernandes, aligned with the BJP, and later floated the JD-U.

The tie-up with Lalu Prasad came under sharp criticism from political commentators. But both Lalu and Nitish knew only too well that the alliance made immense political sense. Like Modi in 2014, the Mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, in 2015 was a formidable force that had the capacity to bring a wide range of caste groups together. The rest is history, made by the electorate of Bihar last November. Astute manipulation of the caste matrix and a savvy campaign led the alliance, in which the Congress was a junior ally, to an epochal victory. The BJP perhaps underestimated the power of its opponents and fell victim to its own contradictions. The poll results confirmed that the Muslim-Yadav (M-Y) combination could endure steep odds. Both communities voted massively for the Mahagathbandhan, with Lalu’s RJD securing 80 of the 102 seats it contested, while the BJP won only 53 out of 159 seats. Like the RJD, the JD-U also had a stellar strike rate, winning 71 of 101 seats contested in a 243-member state Assembly.

For Modi, the loss was as personal as it was political, considering that Nitish Kumar and he had shared strained ties even while they were in alliance. Amit Shah ended up earning the wrath of several local BJP leaders for mishandling the Bihar campaign from the start, for over-exposing Modi.

Kishor had left his mark on the polls, and it seemed like sweet revenge. After all, he had endeared himself to Lalu with his pleasing manners when it came to handling tough politicians. He also became a ‘channel’ between Nitish and Lalu, ensuring smooth communication, says a senior JD-U functionary. He also had a say in the choice of candidates for constituencies. “He became a go-between,” Lalu Prasad tells Open.

Rishi Raj Singh, an IIT Kanpur alumnus who was earlier part of Kishor’s CAG in Gujarat, had told Open that unlike in Gujarat, in Bihar, the newly created group Indian People’s Action Committee (IPAC) was involved in everything from giving feedback on candidates and undercurrents in all constituencies. “We went much deeper in this campaign,” said Singh, who noted that the whole exercise was on a tight budget in comparison with BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign, which was flush with funds. Because of this constraint, Kishor’s team had to make the best use of what was available. IPAC members, who pursued only projects with high ‘return on investment’, told Open that the most effective approach in the countryside was the use of ‘branded bicycles’. The team had 5,000 such cycles at their disposal, each carrying letters signed by Nitish Kumar that listed his achievements and promises. Singh credited Kishor with ensuring smooth coordination between all three constituents of the grand alliance. All messages to constituencies were routed through the leaders of each party and so there were no hiccups or hassles in the execution of plans, he recalled. Nitish Kumar, for his part, appeared before cameras after his dramatic re-election with Kishor alongside, making the affinity clear.

Yet, both 2014 and 2015 were winnable campaigns for Kishor. The challenge he faces in Uttar Pradesh next year, where he is trying to reverse the dwindling poll fortunes of the Congress, is of an entire different order of magnitude.

APART FROM THAT, Kishor has hurdles in Bihar to leap over as well, where he holds a cabinet rank. The multi-crore campaign he had suggested in the state to shore up the image of the new government led by Nitish didn’t have any takers. “Things are not going as smooth as expected for him in Bihar and generally elsewhere also,” says a person in the know.

The Congress campaign is not being steered the way Kishor would have wanted it. He appears to have overestimated his freedom and grossly misjudged how things work within the grand old party

No wonder that Kishor has not been to Patna in the past two months. According to people in the new state dispensation, he seems to be losing his interest in Bihar as its bureaucracy is not very welcoming of ‘outsiders’. “This has been a recent development. From having great ties with two top leaders (Lalu and Nitish) and from exercising influence over ministerial portfolio allocation, he is now showing much less interest in the state. It is not yet a Gandhinagar kind of situation for him here,” says a Patna-based senior JD-U leader.

There are many indications that Kishor, he of the jaunty smile following the Bihar victory, has much to worry about. “He has been trying to expand his activities, but there is no major breakthrough that has come up so far,” says a person who has worked closely with him.

Rumours have been rife in Congress circles that he was given a dressing-down by Congress President Sonia Gandhi for projecting her daughter Priyanka Gandhi as the chief campaigner for the UP polls of 2017, while Rahul remains her sole political heir. Besides, in Punjab, his efforts to warm up to the state Congress leadership backfired. Captain Amarinder Singh has made it clear that he will have nothing to do with the party’s strategy for the state’s polls due next year. Last year, nothing came of Kishor’s offer to handle Mamata Banerjee’s election strategy for West Bengal, reportedly, over financial reasons. According to some Trinamool Congress leaders, he later said he could do it pro bono, but the deal fell through. He also had to eat humble pie when he went as an emissary of Nitish Kumar to stitch together an alliance with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal for the UP polls. Playing power broker, he had also approached All India United Democratic Front’s Badruddin Ajmal in Assam for a tie-up with the Congress, but by then political rivals had already sealed a deal with him.

The ace strategist’s suggestion that the Congress stands a chance in Uttar Pradesh only by winning back a large chunk of Brahmin votes, besides those of Muslims and Dalits, is no rocket science. The disintegration of the Congress in UP began after the Mandal agitation, when Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims began to align with other parties such as the BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi party. In its heyday, the Congress had relied on its Brahmin leaders— the likes of GB Pant, HN Bahuguna and ND Tiwari—to hold power in the state. “He is not telling us anything new,” says a visibly upset local Congress leader from Lucknow who says many party workers detest Kishor’s ‘bossy ways’. Earlier, the strategist had incurred the wrath of non-Brahmin Congressmen for the holding of an exclusive meeting in Kanpur of Brahmin Congressmen on the night of 12 May. It was organised by former Congress MLA Bhudhar Narayan Mishra, and once others got to know of it, their supporters gathered outside the hotel in protest against Kishor and the very idea of a caste-specific gathering. Kishor had to leave hastily in an SUV for Lucknow. “The way we are discussing a particular caste may alienate others in our fold,” says a senior state Congress leader.

Second-rung party leaders, who interact mostly with I-PAC team members, have another set of problems. The latter, in their black T-shirts and trousers as a dress code, have been touring Uttar Pradesh for feedback in groups of three, and appear to be rubbing local politicians the wrong way. “These young boys think they are running the party,” complains a district president who was stopped by a member of Kishor’s team from entering a meeting because he couldn’t produce an identity card.

What is worse, despite his posturing, Kishor finds himself clueless at times with the way things are run in the Congress. Former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, who had mishandled various political opportunities and events in the capital city- state and once let out a string of invectives against the people of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar over the Nirbhaya rape case of 2012, was not Kishor’s choice as the party’s chief ministerial candidate in India’s most populous state. He had pitched Pramod Tiwari as the Pradesh Congress Committee president for UP, but, in an apparent snub, the party high command named the actor-turned- politician Raj Babbar instead.

KISHOR’S TROUBLES DON’T end there. Unlike in Bihar, where he had managed to establish a close rapport with the grand alliance’s chief ministerial candidate and was treated like a member of Nitish Kumar’s Circular Road household, in Uttar Pradesh, Dikshit, never known to be self-effacing, has already described Ghulam Nabi Azad as the Amit Shah of Congress, signalling that she cares two hoots for professionals like Kishor.

In May this year, an I-PAC worker told Open that everything was going ‘as per expectations’. His argument then was compelling: “We have been able to create a buzz about the Congress. People are discussing a Brahmin face for leadership of the party. If the Brahmins of the state discuss Congress [affairs] at a paan shop—no matter even if they abuse us—the fact that they are discussing us is [good news] for a party which was nowhere in the reckoning. Earlier, if you went to any district and asked a Congress worker he would reluctantly narrate a sad story. Today, they all would say something is happening, something big is being planned. If we are able to keep this momentum going, the Congress will surprise everyone.”

It is too early to say how the Congress campaign will progress— and there is more than half a year to go before the polls— but it is safe to say that it is not being steered the way Kishor would have wanted it. He appears to have overestimated his freedom, not to speak of his powers of persuasion, and grossly misjudged how things work within the grand old party.

“Looks like the Congress is showing Kishor his place,” says a senior BJP leader based in Delhi, laughing.

The self-proclaimed creator of many brands may have to work on revamping his own.