The will-they, won’t-they around Prashant Kishor’s possible induction into the Congress party ended on Tuesday with the Congress’ Randeep Surjewala declaring that they’d offered Kishor a position in the party with a “defined responsibility” and that the latter had denied it. Responding soon after, Kishor also put out a tweet saying he had refused to join the Empowered Action Group 2024, formed by the Congress president just the day before, and take responsibility for the elections, suggesting that the grand old party needed “transformational reforms”.
While the courtship between PK and the Gandhis played out over two and a half weeks, those in the Congress not involved in the negotiations, discussions or meetings, followed dubious presentations circulating on WhatsApp, media reports and Twitter gossip to figure out what was happening.
As a Congress beat reporter, these were the people who formed the link between me and the committee “reviewing” the PK presentation. In the sometimes short and long conversations with them, it seemed that the PK saga had brought some excitement to a party that looked down and out after the assembly election results in March. While some said that they had “already suggested” many of the “strategies” delineated by PK, others asked how they would be implemented given the way Congress functions. Yet others speculated if PK is genuinely coming to help the party or if he was looking to become the number two in a nearly-collapsing party in order to ‘take over’ it.
There were many conjectures but not too many answers. Till Tuesday, of course, when a 45-year-old poll-strategist apparently “rejected” the Congress and the 135-year-old party couldn’t manage enough media support to say – “But, he approached us!’.
In a way, the PK episode is a clear and ironic display of all things Kishor said were wrong with the Congress. A communication team that wasn’t capable of outsmarting the PK and I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee) machinery, let alone the Bharatiya Janata Party. An organisation that let, what should’ve been a private negotiation, turn into a public affair. And a leadership, at the heart of which is ostensibly India’s best-known political family, that came out of the affair after being “rejected” by someone who is yet to call himself a politician.
And for these reasons, Prashant Kishor is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the week.
Did Congress need a strategist?
Congress leader Digvijay Singh, who was also a part of the eight-member committee set up by Sonia Gandhi to study Kishor’s presentation, said: “It is ultimately Congress which has to move and put its house in order. Consultant or no consultant.”
As per reports, while Singh said that PK’s ideas were good, he also warned against giving him a hefty organisational or political position in the party. However, his jibe may have come a little late with Kishor himself saying that the Congress doesn’t need him but a “leadership and collective will to fix the deep-rooted structural problems” in the party “through transformational reforms”.
So, what does the Congress really need? And is it a strategist?
Congress functionaries, especially younger ones, argue that PK’s strategies, while good, aren’t novel. “I’d suggested an idea of a particular outreach drive to Rahul Gandhi over two months ago. He didn’t seem interested. When PK said the same thing, he said, ‘great idea!’, and asked him to make me a part of that project,” said a Congress functionary.
A report in The Indian Express also notes similarities between suggestions made by PK with regard to the Congress’ top leadership and those suggested by the G-23 earlier. While there are differences in nuances, the broader picture about a changed, less-controlling and more accessible top leadership remains the same.
If strategy or campaign ideas are not the issue, then the roadblock, as PK declining the Congress offer has also proved, is the implementation of these strategies.
In an interview with India Today on Thursday, Kishor said that he did not want to be a part of the EAG because he felt that the rights, duties and powers of the body would be in conflict with other bodies formed under the Congress constitution. Other reports suggest that he was looking to have a direct line with the Congress president who, as per him, is the only person to have seen his full 600-slide, nine-hour long presentation.
But if PK can demand a free line to the top boss for the purposes of ease of doing work, then why not grant the same to the countless general secretaries, secretaries, department heads and workers in the party who have shown loyalty and grit through the party’s toughest times? Why induct a consultant laterally and give him so much organisational power? That was a sour point for many in the Congress as details of the negotiations emerged and it was learnt that PK was being considered for the post of general secretary, one of the highest political positions in the party.
“He could be an advisor or election in-charge or whatever it is. But the sort of role he wanted, like that of general secretary for elections or strategy, would cause problems in many sections of the party. He wanted communication, data, election strategy and social media under him. This means that he’d control everything from media interviews to social media trends to ticket distribution during elections. How is it fair to give so much power to someone who’s just joined the party? That too on the basis of a PowerPoint presentation?” asked a Congress secretary, on the condition of anonymity.
Could Prashant Kishor be a politician?
Throughout the negotiations, though, two things stood out: first, that Sonia Gandhi was in-charge and that no amount of external coercion could change her mind if it was made up. Second, the genius or the “media management” of Prashant Kishor.
While it has been reported that Kishor was the one who sought a meeting with and has thereafter been in touch with the Congress for over two years, in the last two weeks, he successfully used the media to project himself as the party’s saviour.
It has also been confirmed to ThePrint by reliable sources that the timing of Surjewala and PK’s tweets was also coordinated. It was by design that the Congress accepted first that PK had “declined” their offer. In his interview with India Today as well, PK harped that he had declined the offer, as opposed to the Congress refusing him entry.
Those more familiar with the Congress, though, would say that they made an offer that was ‘completely refusable’ (to paraphrase Al Pacino). It takes narrative management to prove otherwise and PK was controlling the narrative from the get-go as “sources close to Prashant Kishor” had a field day.
“Talking about what went wrong or right in internal negotiations was quite distasteful, as per me. He should let it be now. Though, it is also the party’s fault that things got to this place where a consultant can say that he’s rejected us,” said a Congress MP from south India.
The MP also added that Kishor’s ‘sleepover’ with the Congress’ principal rival in Telangana, K Chandrashekhar Rao (KCR), while negotiations were on, was “insulting”.
“This is basic decency, isn’t it? When the whole world is talking about you joining the Congress, what kind of message does meeting and staying with KCR give out? It’s an insult to the audience that the party has given him”, said the MP.
Another Congress secretary, though, made a slightly philosophical, but an important point – can PK be a Congress politician?
“It is true that there are lots of things said about Rahul Gandhi, but even today a lot of decisions, if not most decisions in the Congress, are based on our ideology. And that comes from the top. On the other hand, there’s this man who’s never shown any kind of ideological bent and till the end, did not bother to clarify his relationship with I-PAC? He still keeps saying he has “nothing to do” with them. Really? Are we stupid? How can we trust someone who isn’t honest about the very basics?” the secretary asked.
As of now, it is unclear whether the PK-Congress saga has reached a full stop or a comma. If “sources close to PK” are to be believed, it is the latter.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)