Prashant Kishor’s expulsion from the Janata Dal (United) following his very public brawl with Nitish Kumar over the new Citizenship Act made it to national headlines, like much else that the poll strategist-turned-politician-turned-rebel with a cause does.
Kishor, in many ways, is an enigma — has no mass base, no real power, does not have a perfect track record and yet, remains powerful, relevant and in-demand. This is an art he has mastered. Essentially, like any good salesman, Prashant Kishor needs a solid product to sell — Narendra Modi, Amarinder Singh, Jagan Mohan Reddy. But he is far from the magician he is made out to be or models himself to be, and cannot turn weak sides into stronger ones.
Kishor does well when he is with the winning side, garnishing their victory with his razor-sharp touch. But when he had, for instance, Rahul Gandhi to convince voters with and to build a brand around, he simply couldn’t.
Now, Prashant Kishor has been roped in by Tamil Nadu’s DMK to help in the 2021 state assembly polls. This, even as he is managing Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s campaign for the state polls due on 8 February.
A power centre
The former public health expert, who worked with the United Nations, ventured into the political arena in 2011 when he met then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. But it was his active involvement in Modi’s 2014 Lok Sabha campaign — an election that is a textbook case for everything done right — that catapulted him to instant fame. He was the hot property every political party wanted.
Since then, Prashant Kishor’s journey has been largely chequered in terms of the number of times he has jumped ships, and the results he has shown. But, from Punjab to West Bengal, from Uttar Pradesh to Andhra and from Delhi to Tamil Nadu — Kishor’s demand has only continued to grow, making him a power centre in Indian politics in his own right.
An uneven track record
Prashant Kishor has delivered several impressive results — from Modi in 2014, the mahagathbandhan in Bihar in 2015 to Amarinder Singh in 2017 and Jagan Reddy in 2019 — and yet, the question to be asked is whether these successes can be attributed to the poll strategist, given the instances where his ‘magic’ hasn’t quite worked.
Consider this. Modi ran a smart, crafty campaign in 2014, when the voter was desperate for a change and the ruling Congress was dealing with corruption charges. Kishor worked hard, but would Modi not have won that election, and in the manner that he did, without the poll strategist?
BJP’s performance over the next few years has the answer. The party went on to win several difficult states — Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Tripura — without Kishor. More importantly, Modi won the 2019 Lok Sabha polls by an even larger margin, despite the burden of a five-year incumbency. Does the Modi- Amit Shah combine, and their ‘backroom boys’ (some of whom privately claim several of the 2014 slogans attributed to Kishor were actually a result of ‘team work’) really need him?
In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh polls, not only did the BJP win without Kishor, it actually won against him. The poll strategist came on board for the Congress campaign, made one disastrous call after another — from declaring Sheila Dikshit as the CM face to overusing Rahul Gandhi — and the results left the Congress-Samajwadi Party combine in tatters. The biggest sufferer — the Congress.
In the same set of elections, however, Kishor managed a victory in Punjab where Amarinder Singh rode to power on a savvy, connected campaign. And yet, that election was more about the fiesty chief minister, his voter connect and astuteness.
In the Bihar polls, Kishor had a deadly combination of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav — two of Bihar’s most popular and rooted politicians — to work with. He mounted a bright campaign, and it helped that the rival BJP made silly mistakes, like RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s famous reservation comments or Modi’s equally foolish DNA remarks.
What makes Kishor tick
The strategist is now carefully choosing strong sides — Jagan, Mamata Banerjee, Kejriwal and now DMK. This is precisely the astuteness that has kept him afloat. For instance, more than selling the politician he is working with, Kishor knows how to sell himself, and make leaders across the spectrum believe they need him.
He has tantalising ideas that his clients can barely afford to refuse, and that voters (mostly) lap up — Chai Pe Charcha for Modi, Coffee with Captain for Amarinder Singh, Didi ke Bolo for Mamata Banerjee and Aage Badhta Rahe Bihar, Phir Ek Baar Nitish Kumar. The Khaat Pe Charcha for Rahul Gandhi was a damp squib, but the branding is effective only if the product has the potential of working.
Prashant Kishor knows the importance and art of branding, and of aggressively peddling that brand, substance or not — including his own. Moreover, this is a revolutionary concept for Indian politics, where ‘party loyalty’ is all-important and those switching sides are seen as part of the Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram syndrome.
This poll strategist, however, has made himself an exception. So, Kishor stands with Modi against Rahul’s Congress, but then stands with Rahul’s Congress against Modi in UP. He fights for Congress’ Amarinder Singh against the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab, but a few years later, helps the AAP fight against the Congress and the BJP in Delhi. More jarringly, he officially becomes a politician by joining the JD(U), but continues to advice parties that are rivals of the NDA camp that Nitish belongs to — Trinamool Congress, YSR Congress and AAP, for instance.
Of course, Kishore also knows how to tackle the media, disseminate his message through it and most crucially, keep the ‘Khan Market gang’ on his side. He has kept up the pretence of being the ‘behind-the-scenes’, even while carefully designing himself as a premium brand.
What Prashant Kishor’s trajectory in politics can teach established politicians in India is how to remain relevant, in-demand and on the radar always. And with his latest ‘rebel’ avatar, he has shown how seamlessly one can transition from a backroom, placid version to an aggressive, standing up-for-a-cause one.