Lucknow: For Prashant Kishor, the 2021 assembly elections may well be one of the defining moments of his 10-year career as a political strategist.
The man who rose to national prominence with his role in the BJP and Narendra Modi’s landslide victory in 2014 has now helped defeat an aggressive campaign put up by the same party in a state it deeply coveted — West Bengal.
Kishor had been hired by the Trinamool Congress in 2019 to guide it to victory in this election. According to the trends so far, he has succeeded, and how.
Adding to his achievement is the fact that the BJP’s campaign in West Bengal was personally overseen by Union Home Minister Amit Shah — a sharp strategist in his own right. After all, it was because of Shah that Kishor’s association with the BJP reportedly came to an end.
A Trinamool Congress leader who didn’t wish to be named went as far as saying that the 2021 elections were a “sweet revenge” for Kishor.
It isn’t Bengal alone. Kishor and his Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) were also the strategists for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, as the party contested its first election without its towering patriarch M. Karunanidhi, who passed away in 2018. The DMK looks set to assume power in the state with a comfortable majority.
The elections, however, seem to have been Kishor’s swan song. In an interview to NDTV Sunday afternoon, after the TMC took a decisive lead against the BJP, Kishor said that he has had enough. “I want to quit as a poll strategist and do something else in life,” he added.
Kishor did not respond to numerous calls from ThePrint for a comment on this report.
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Hit the ground running
When the TMC brass approached Kishor in 2019, he and his team knew very well that it’s not going to be an easy job. The opponent was formidable. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has never been in power in West Bengal, but the party had pulled out all the stops in its campaign.
So they got right down to the job.
The first team of I-PAC landed in Kolkata to set up their office sometime in July 2019.
The TMC’s campaign had Kishor’s fingerprints all over it. From people-centric schemes like Didi-ke-Bolo (Tell Didi, which is how CM Mamata Banerjee is referred to in West Bengal), to Duare-Sarkar (government at your doors), to coming up with catchy slogans, which have been Kishor’s USP.
It was Kishor’s idea to build on the insider-versus-outsider narrative when BJP leaders from Delhi started talking about Bengal’s cultural icons.
“We launched the campaign (slogan) Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chay (Bengal only wants its daughter) as it was an echo of what the public was resonating. It caught on with the people. Everybody could see how the BJP had put all its men and machinery — MLAs, MPs and cabinet ministers from across — in Bengal for campaigning. It backfired…,” Arjun Dutta, a key member of I-PAC, told ThePrint over the phone from Kolkata.
Dutta has been one of Kishor’s early associates and has been with I-PAC from the beginning.
As soon as they arrived in Bengal, Dutta said, over 300 I-PAC volunteers, including local residents, fanned out across the state, right from districts to blocks and villages, for a reality check on the ground.
“After doing a thorough assessment of the party’s work on the ground since 2016, when the TMC came to power for the second time, we launched our first campaign sometime in December called ‘Didi-ke-Bolo’ (Tell Didi), where people could register their complaints telephonically or email about their problem,” he said.
The direct outreach with the CM through the ‘Didi ke Bolo’ campaign helped the party build a connection with people on the ground. Campaign slogans like “Banglar Garbo Mamata (Bengal’s pride Mamata)”, which played on Bengali pride, followed.
Then there was the Bangadhwani Yatra, where the TMC rank and file were mobilised to reach out to households right upto ward level. Trinamool workers from all levels were engaged to take part in public rallies and meetings at tea stalls and public parks to take their feedback about the government’s welfare schemes.
Another important intervention by Kishor’s team was the revamping of the Trinamool Congress’ social and digital media platforms, and using them to counter the charges levelled by the BJP, amplify the work done by Mamata Banerjee, and build her and the party’s image.
“The BJP had all the resources and manpower at their disposal. They brought their party’s IT cell head Amit Malviya to take charge of their social and digital media campaign. But we beat them at their own game through our sustained social media campaigns,” Dutta said.
In public statements, Kishor always appeared confident about the Trinamool Congress’ prospects. So much so, Kishor said in an interview that “if the BJP comes to power in Bengal, I will quit my job and do something entirely different.”
Trinamool Congress Lok Sabha MP Professor Sougata Roy told thePrint that Kishor played a key role in ensuring the party’s decisive victory.
“Prashant Kishor set the Trinamool Congress house in order and leveraged Mamata Banerjee’s popularity among the people,” Roy said. Kishor and his team, he added, not only designed some of the popular schemes that the Trinamool Congress launched in the last two years but also came up with catchy slogans like ‘Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chay’ and ‘Banglar Garbo Mamata (Bengal’s pride Mamata)’ that resonated with the people of the state.
His team, in coordination with Diamond Harbour MP (and Mamata’s nephew) Abhishek Banerjee also gave crucial feedback about party candidates, which helped during candidate selection, Roy said.
“Kishor’s team also designed party leaders’ campaigns, which leader will campaign where and what they should focus on. The final decision on all the suggestions/recommendations made by Kishor and his team were taken by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee,” Roy added.
In Tamil Nadu, the I-PAC was brought in to elevate DMK chief M.K. Stalin’s stature before DMK cadres. Among other things, the I-PAC helped the party pull off outreach programmes to help the needy during the Covid lockdown.
A distinguished career, the rare blot
Kishor has often been accused of siding with the winning team.
Be it Gujarat (with the BJP in 2012), Bihar (with the Janata Dal United in 2015), Andhra Pradesh (with YSR Congress in 2019), Punjab (with Congress in 2017), Delhi (Aam Aadmi Party in 2020) or Maharashtra (with the Shiv Sena in 2019).
His sharply designed campaign strategies are credited with helping Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, Amarinder Singh, Uddhav Thackeray and Arvind Kejriwal come to power in their respectives states.
However, opposition leaders have often alleged that many of these leaders were popular in their own right and would have won on their own, with or without Kishor.
Kishor first came into limelight in 2012, ahead of the Gujarat assembly elections, where he helped Modi get re-elected as Chief Minister. The biggest feather in his cap was the 2014 parliamentary election.
He is credited with designing some of the popular campaign features like Modi’s 3D hologram address and “chai pe charcha”, which seeks to invoke the PM’s humble roots as a tea-seller.
Kishor, however, fell out with the BJP. He then went to his home state Bihar to help strategise for Nitish Kumar, who won the election. Kishor eventually joined the party in 2018. In a subsequent interview, Shah reportedly said he had played a role in Kishor’s induction into the JD(U).
But Kishor’s political foray was short-lived.
He fell out with Nitish over the JD(U)’s decision to support the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act, and was eventually expelled from the JD(U) for being openly critical of the party.
One of the rare blots in his strategist career was 2017 Uttar Pradesh, where his famed campaign strategy failed to help the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance come to power.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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