Jo darr gaya woh mandir gaya,” Aamir Khan says in his reel life character in 2014 movie PK. There has been a slight change in this dialogue in real life since that eventful year: ‘Jo darr gaya woh PK ke paas gaya.’
Look at the list of illustrious clients Narendra Modi’s former campaign manager PK, or Prashant Kishor, has today: the Shiv Sena, the BJP’s coalition partner in Maharashtra; the Trinamool Congress, the BJP’s arch enemy in West Bengal; and the Makkal Needhi Maiam, a Tamil Nadu party founded by Kamal Haasan who is yet to make up his mind on Modi.
Kishor, a former Rahul Gandhi adviser, is also the vice-president of the Janata Dal (United), a post he owes to BJP president Amit Shah, who called up Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar twice to induct the election strategist in his party.
If the reel life PK were to read the current profile of his real life namesake, he would surely repeat: “Hum bahut hi confusiya gaya hoon.” So, what is it in Prashant Kishor that made him a new faith (reel life PK’s mandir) for Indian politicians, notwithstanding their conflicting ideologies and interests?
What is Prashant Kishor’s USP?
Last Wednesday, when I asked West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh what he thought of the Prashant Kishor factor in West Bengal politics, he chuckled: “Nothing. Prashant Kishor jo Mamata Banerjee ko subah mein sikhata hai, who sham mein bhool jaati hai (What Prashant Kishor teaches Mamata Banerjee in the morning, she forgets by the evening). Can you imagine her criticising Chandrayaan when the entire country was so supportive?” Banerjee had said that the Chandrayaan-2 launch was being played up by the BJP government to divert attention from the ‘economic disaster’.
Ghosh’s remark was an acknowledgement of Kishor’s expertise in political messaging, a trait the latter had shown while conceptualising campaign strategies like Chai Pe Charcha, use of 3D hologram technology in rallies and several other innovative programmes for Modi in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Kishor continued to be a master in branding political leaders and connecting them with the masses through campaigns such as Coffee with Captain (for Amarinder Singh in Punjab), Khaat Pe Charcha (for Rahul Gandhi), Didi ke Bolo website (for Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal) and Aage Badhta Rahe Bihar, Phir Ek Baar Nitish Kumar. From slogans and posters to leaders’ speeches and comments, Kishor plans it all. On Kishor’s advice, Jaganmohan Reddy of the YSR Congress party in Andhra Pradesh wrote over 60,000 letters to influencers in villages, besides doing a 14-month-long pada yatra.
On the back end of the operations, Kishor sets up several teams. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, the Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC), a group mentored by him, set up a media team with over 20 members, a social media team with about 30 members, a data analytics team with about half-a-dozen people, field operations team (one constituency manager looking after two assembly constituencies with the help of one local resident from each), and a political intelligence unit to gather feedback from citizens — doctors, lawyers, teachers, labourers, farmers, et al.
The data analytics team gathered ‘historical data’ such as 50 “swing booths” in the last 10 years and ‘weak’ booths, too. The field operation units use data like these to identify issues, caste equations, and influencers such as village heads. They would conduct surveys to identify winning candidates. Creating WhatsApp groups at the booth level and flooding them with messages, cartoon and memes was, of course, a given.
Prashant Kishor follows a similar template elsewhere. He definitely gives a big leg up to his clients, identifying and working on their strengths and weaknesses. But his successes expose his clients, too.
The soft underbelly of politicians
The more PK succeeds, the more pathetic the Indian political class looks. After all, what does a former public health expert bring on the table that Indian professional politicians should already not have? How do a few discussions over tea, coffee or khat (cot) change a politician’s image overnight? How come a booth- or block-level member of the BJP, Congress, JD(U), TMC or MNM does not know what Kishor’s data analytics or field operations team gathers about the swing booths or burning issues or influencers? And booth-wise data is available in public domain for anybody and everybody to interpret.
Of course, each party knows, or has the means to know, everything that election strategists like Prashant Kishor bring on the table for a not-so-decent a fee. Modi knew it but who would mind desperate helpers? No wonder that after the Lok Sabha elections were over and Kishor was expecting his Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) group to be rewarded with a role in governance — as a monitoring body or on the lines of the National Advisory Council of the UPA era — Modi chose to look the other way and rely on tried-and-tested institutions. The election strategist, even after shifting to the opposition camp, clung to the hope and kept meeting Modi. But Modi and Amit Shah did not need him for any other election. They didn’t miss his services either as was evident from the results of subsequent elections.
Even in the Congress, Kishor and his men were often confronted with a common refrain, as one Uttarakhand politician put to them: “Hum chalees saal se politics kar rahe hain. Tu mujhe sikhayega politics kaise karte hain!” The Congressmen were telling the much-hyped election strategists that after being in politics for decades, they didn’t need to learn its ways from them. That was one of the reasons Kishor could never get along with Congressmen and ultimately quit his association with the party. Nobody heard a sob at 10, Janpath or 12, Tughlaq Lane (Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s residences in New Delhi) even though the Congress faced an existentialist crisis.
The Congressmen’s self-aggrandisement or hubris might be misplaced, but Kishor had nothing to defend himself, especially after his dismal failure as the party’s strategist in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh elections in 2017. He hasn’t been able to shed the label of a fortune hunter who tags along with potential winners — Modi in 2014, Nitish Kumar-Lalu in 2015, Capt. Amarinder Singh in 2017, and Jaganmohan Reddy in 2019. In that sense, the much-celebrated election strategist has got a real chance to prove his mettle in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu in 2021 assembly elections even though his admirers may like to credit him with what looks like a cake walk for the NDA in Maharashtra this year and Bihar next year.
Beyond election results, the success of Prashant Kishor so far – more in terms of his projection than the reality – exposes the insecurity and vulnerabilities of India’s political class, which needs an external agency to tell even senior leaders how to connect with the voters – and how to manipulate them.
Post-script: On a winter evening in 2002 (or was it 2003?), I had my first one-on-one meeting with former BJP general secretary and RSS ideologue K.N. Govindacharya in Jaipur. Before he went on to give me a long lecture on the impact of globalisation – he had taken a two-year sabbatical to study it – he asked me about my birthplace. “Bihar,” I replied perfunctorily. Asking about one’s birthplace to start a conversation or to strike a rapport has always been an old trick. He then went on to ask which district I hailed from, the block, all the way down to the police station – until the Tirupati-born leader recalled and enumerated the names of places near my birthplace. He remembered the name of the MLA and the plight of roads. I was dumbstruck. One can only imagine what could happen if Govindacharya were to be available on hire as an election strategist today. PK won’t be amused, for sure.