For several eternal optimists whose hearts skip a beat at the mere mention of the Congress’ resurrection, Easter Sunday came a little early. A day before, poll strategist Prashant Kishor was at 10, Janpath, presenting a blueprint for the party’s revival on the way to the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Sonia Gandhi decided to form a committee to study his proposition.
When was the last time a Congress committee report saw the light of day and its recommendations implemented? In 2007, Sonia Gandhi set up a 13-member committee to look into the ‘future challenges’, with Rahul Gandhi as a member. Nothing came out of it. Today, many of those members have become ‘present challenges’ for the Gandhis – Jyotiraditya Scindia, Veerappa Moily, Mukul Wasnik, Anand Sharma, Prithviraj Chavan, and Sandeep Dikshit. While Scindia joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), others are now part of the famous ‘G-21’ (G-23, originally). Ask AK Antony how many party committees he headed and what happened to their reports.
The latest committee on Prashant Kishor’s roadmap may not meet the same fate though. PK has been discussing his ideas with the Gandhis for two years and both sides agree on “90 per cent” issues. Their talks on the remaining 10 per cent broke down last September. If the Gandhis called him again on Saturday, their differences must be whittling down.
The Gandhis are desperate to get PK on board. The Congress is imploding. The trust deficit between them and their party colleagues is only widening. If nothing else, PK’s association with the Congress, in whatever capacity, could take the pressure off the Gandhis, they must hope. Those who don’t see any future in Congress may pause and re-think, given PK’s reputation as a poll strategist with a magical wand.
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Prashant Kishor’s Congress strategy
So, what is Prashant Kishor’s plan for the Congress? You don’t necessarily need to see his blueprint for that. As veteran journalist Arun Shourie says, in search of a so-called secret document, we fail to read what’s available in public records. PK has, in a number of interviews over the past three months, left enough clues about his handbook on how to defeat the BJP or revive the Congress. He has given out a broad outline of his strategy without getting into operational details. In essence, Prashant Kishor has a ‘4Ms’ formula — Message, Messenger, Machinery and Mechanics.
What will be the Congress’ big message in 2024? Well, the opposition must first examine what’s working for the BJP. Essentially, three things, he says — Hindutva, hyper-nationalism and welfarism. So, how does one counter them? PK doesn’t proffer specific answers- not in public, at least. But he is conscious of their limitations.
For instance, election data shows that only one out of two Hindus voted for the BJP, he argues. “Hindutva has its limitations. You can bring 50-55 per cent Hindus on the basis of Hindutva but there are enough liberal, open-minded Hindus…. It’s a futile exercise to get into a debate over Hinduism and Hindutva,” he told ThePrint Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta in a recent Off The Cuff programme.
As for hyper-nationalism, Prashant Kishor finds it ‘unimaginable’ that a party that led India’s Independence movement should struggle to counter BJP’s “anti-national” narrative against the opposition. He has been raising many questions, in dismay and disbelief. How can the Congress allow the BJP to appropriate an icon like Sardar Patel? How many Congressmen are actually fighting for Jawaharlal Nehru, beyond holding press conferences? Expect the opposition party to take a series of initiatives to reclaim the ‘nationalist’ space and its icons soon, that is, if PK gets associated with it.
As for the BJP’s welfarism, the opposition must have an alternative proposition for the people, offering them a better deal if they elect it to power. And the alternative should look more credible and convincing.
These are the broad contours of the opposition’s likely counter-narrative that PK has been dwelling on.
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Can Congress have a non-Gandhi Messenger?
Of the four ‘Ms’ that form his mantra of success, ‘messenger’ is the most complex and ticklish in the context of the Congress. In his interviews, Kishor has been articulate about the effectiveness of the JP Nadda model. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah virtually run the BJP. But they have Nadda as the party president. It helps the BJP’s narrative about the party offering everyone an opportunity to reach the top. In an interview with Mojo Story’s Barkha Dutt, PK had said: “In the BJP, Modi and Shah run the organization but Nadda is the president. How does the BJP use it? It says that even a booth-level worker can become president. Whether they become or not, it sends out a message to the masses at large.”
PK has been vocal about his views that the jobs of the Prime Minister and a party president are different and they require different skill sets. So, one who runs the organisation shouldn’t be the PM candidate, whose main job is to strike a chord with the people, telling them their vision for them and winning the janata’s hearts.
But that’s a problem with the Congress. Not that Dr Manmohan Singh was any Modi, but a repeat of the Sonia-Singh model looks unlikely. Although PK maintains that he finds Sonia still capable of running the party and has no problem with Rahul Gandhi’s return to the helm, it doesn’t change his views on the Nadda model. “You cannot remain a principal political force for long if you are a family-run party,” he told Shekhar Gupta at the OTC.
At 75, another term as Congress president for Sonia Gandhi is out of the question, although one never knows about the Congress. If Rahul Gandhi returns, notwithstanding his proven competence, or the lack of it for the job, he shouldn’t be the PM face as per PK’s strategic vision. How would it gel with the Gandhis? If the Gandhis were to concede and project a Nadda in the election for the party president’s post in September, it would pacify the G-21 and also help the party shed its dynastic tag. But, given the Gandhis’ track record, it amounts to asking for the moon.
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The fate of Rahul Gandhi’s lieutenants
Prashant Kishor is known to have plans to rebuild the Congress from the bottom up — forming committees from the booth, block and district levels. But he will find the going tough once he decides to fix accountability in the party, starting right from the top.
PK often points out how the Congress blames its failures on its inability to communicate with the people. He is perplexed: How has Randeep Surjewala been heading the Congress’ communication department for over seven years? Well, if PK starts looking at the track record of people around Rahul Gandhi and seeking accountability from them, he will find that the Congress leader’s 12, Tughaq Lane residence is deserted.
Prashant Kishor is not known to hold one view in public and another on closed fora in his assessment of contemporary politics and the strengths and weaknesses of parties. The question, therefore, remains if the Gandhis are ready for the big churn in their party that he wants to bring. Will PK change the Congress or will it be the other way round? Nobody has an answer yet.
DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)