Political strategist Prashant Kishor picks winners, his critics say. He appoints himself as consultant to a party, most likely to win an imminent election, and then takes credit for a victory he had nothing to do with, according to his critics.
But it gets curious if you flip the question. Why do winners need Prashant Kishor?
When Kishor starts working on an election, the critics say ‘What can he do?’ When the election is won, they say ‘What did he do?’
If Arvind Kejriwal was going to win Delhi 2020 anyway, why did he bring on Prashant Kishor? Why did he tweet announcing he was welcoming on board the Kishor-mentored Indian Political Action Committee?
Thanks to the anti-incumbency against Chandrababu Naidu, Jagan Mohan Reddy was going to become the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in 2019 anyway, we are told. If it was so certain, why did Reddy go and get Prashant Kishor to design his entire campaign for a full two years?
Captain Amarinder Singh is a well-respected politician in Punjab. The Aam Aadmi Party did not have a face in the Punjab 2017 elections. It was Captain’s time. He won the election on his image. Which begs the question: why did Captain need Kishor?
For the 2015 Bihar assembly election, Nitish Kumar tied up with his bête noire Lalu Prasad Yadav. The caste combination was such that the coalition would have won anyway, some say. They had the Congress with them too. Sounds easy. But then why did Nitish Kumar need Prashant Kishor? And why did Nitish Kumar value Prashant Kishor so much that he later made him vice-president of his party?
Narendra Modi is the champion king of Indian politics. Prashant Kishor’s critics say he did not make much of a difference in Modi’s 282 seats in 2014. If this was the case, why was Modi wooing Kishor back in 2017?
Kishor’s critics admit that he has a tough battle ahead in West Bengal, where the BJP is putting everything at stake. But if Mamata Banerjee wins the Bengal election early next year, the same critics will say: Didi is a popular leader, the BJP had no face, she was going to win anyway. What did Kishor do?
The political commentators in Delhi feel the DMK is going to win the 2021 Tamil Nadu assembly election. It’s the DMK’s turn, and now that the father is no more, Stalin will be the CM. Fair enough. Why then has the DMK signed up Prashant Kishor? Are the foolish to give him attention and credit?
But over the next few months, we’ll be told by these very political commentators that Tamil Nadu is uncertain because of the Rajinikanth factor. If Stalin still wins, the same critics will say Rajnikanth was never a factor, and Kishor just landed up to take credit for Stalin’s pre-destined victory.
After the fact
An election victory often looks like a foregone conclusion only after the fact. Just go back and check your own tweets and WhatsApp messages over the last two weeks. Many of you were wondering if the BJP’s Hindutva push can defeat the AAP.
The fact is, the AAP was down and out after three terrible election defeats: Punjab and MCD in 2017, and the Lok Sabha in 2019. They needed Kishor because they were, in fact, not certain of winning the 2020 Delhi election.
In Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party was at one point in time said to be winning 100 of 117 seats. Captain Amarinder Singh desperately wanted Kishor because it was his last chance to be chief minister and he didn’t want to lose it. Many senior pundits and analysts felt that the AAP was winning Punjab, right till the results came out. Once the results were out, they said Captain had to win anyway.
Captain had lost two consecutive elections — one as an incumbent and the one as a challenger. This performance saw him booted out as Punjab Congress chief. The main problem with the Punjab Congress was factionalism. Kishor did many things in terms of strategy, branding and communication, but the most important was that he went around managing each faction to make sure they let Amarinder win this time. By contrast, we have just seen how the Congress couldn’t decide between Ashok Tanwar and Bhupinder Singh Hooda Tull the very end in Haryana, and thus lost a winnable election.
Jagan Mohan Reddy was so down and out in Andhra in 2014 that he seemed to be over. The Telugu Desam Party poached a third of his party’s MPs and MLAs. Reddy’s image was of a corrupt, feudal, arrogant dynast. His victory was far from certain.
In Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s stock in 2015 was quite low. He has had a crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha at the hands of the BJP, and Amit Shah was expanding the party into new territories like a conqueror. Yes, Nitish Kumar did tie-up with Lalu Yadav, but the critics said the alliance won’t last. The BJP was banking on their fighting over seat-sharing and other matters, and the alliance would break up even before the election. Kishor made sure that doesn’t happen. He made himself the common channel of communication between the two leaders to ensure there is no disharmony. (Fun fact: Kishor was against the Nitish-Lalu alliance. He insisted he could make Nitish win on his own but Nitish didn’t have the risk appetite for that.)
When the patient doesn’t take the medicine
While the critics say the political consultant chosen by winners gets no credit for the victories, the consultant gets all the blame for the losses. Hence, they say that Kishor could not make the Congress party improve its prospects in Uttar Pradesh in 2017.
In UP in 2016, Kishor achieved the Herculean task of making Rahul Gandhi travel the state for a consistent campaign on farmers’ issues without a single day’s holiday. But that was step one — or just the first “module” as these consultant types say. There were many other things lined-up non-stop to build momentum. The key was to declare Priyanka Gandhi as the chief ministerial candidate. The Congress party has agreed to all these proposals, and, as only the Congress can do, went back on them. All the plans were laid to waste.
It was a case of the patient not taking the medicine for the full course and then blaming the doctor.
Kishor’s mistake was that he didn’t part ways with the Congress there and then. The critics do have a point about what came thereafter: he became overconfident he could make an SP-Congress alliance win the state.
Malice and misunderstanding
Some of the dismissal of Kishor comes from malice: the durbaris around top politicians don’t want to lose their jobs to an American-style consultant. This was certainly the case with Congress.
Kishor is India’s first western-style political consultant. And the first man through the door often gets shot. There are others, but the political system doesn’t want them to be in the limelight, taking credit. The system wants to treat consultants as “vendors”. That is bound to change, sooner or later.
Some of the criticism of Kishor comes from a lack of understanding of this beast called modern political campaigning. What exactly is it that Prashant Kishor does? We’ll have to ask Mamata Banerjee, Jagan Mohan Reddy, Nitish Kumar, Captain Amarinder Singh, MK Stalin or Narendra Modi.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.