Poll strategist Prashant Kishor is in the news — for the wrong reasons, again. Trinamool Congress leaders are leaving in droves, and blaming PK for it. Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and heir apparent, Abhishek, is purportedly under his spell, making PK a very powerful man who can run roughshod over anyone outside the Banerjee family. Or so TMC leaders would have us believe.
About a dozen Trinamool leaders, including an MP and seven MLAs, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s presence on Saturday. BJP general secretary in-charge of West Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya, must be gloating. Amit Shah is the principal of the college in which Prashant Kishor is a student, the BJP leader had said in June 2019, following PK’s meeting with Mamata Banerjee. Vijayvargiya must be feeling vindicated — for now, at least. PK is unable to plug the breach inside Mamata’s fort as Shah lays siege to it.
So, what is it about Prashant Kishor that supreme leaders of political parties develop blind faith in him, but he, more often than not, gets in the crosshairs of the second or third rung of leaders? So much so that party chiefs often find it better to get rid of Kishor to keep their flocks together.
Prashant Kishor’s brushes with politicians
Kishor had once grown so close to Nitish Kumar that he had a permanent room in the Bihar chief minister’s official residence. Kumar went on to appoint him the Janata Dal (United)’s vice-president — No. 2 in the party. Fifteen months later, the JD(U) expelled him along with a former party colleague, even calling him a “coronavirus”.
Difference of opinion between the two over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was the immediate, ostensible trigger for the expulsion. But the real reason was Kishor’s inability to get along with senior party leaders, including Ramchandra Prasad Singh, Kumar’s trusted aide.
This was not the first such instance of Kishor having a brush with veteran politicians. Nor was the JD(U) the first such party. It’s his trademark of sorts.
PK owed his rise to fame as a poll strategist for Narendra Modi’s 2014 Lok Sabha election. In the wake of the election success, of the many who basked in the reflected glory, Kishor was a standout. His organisation Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) had given an edge to Modi’s poll campaign, with innovative strategies such as Chai pe charcha, hologram speeches, and Run for Unity among others. Everyone thought PK would be an important man in Team Modi in New Delhi. That was not to be. That he didn’t get along with Amit Shah was hardly a secret in the BJP. The CAG getting so much limelight and credit for Modi’s victory didn’t help either. Kishor was left out in the cold.
The CAG members soon regrouped to form the I-PAC, or Indian Political Action Committee, with PK as its patron. He joined hands with Nitish Kumar and played a key role in forging a grand alliance in Bihar to defeat Amit Shah-led BJP in the 2015 assembly election. It must have been very gratifying for the poll strategist. PK had a point to prove to Modi, and he did it in full measure.
He then moved on to a more ambitious project — to revive the Congress, especially in Uttar Pradesh. He soon grew very close to the entire Gandhi family, although they were not convinced of his idea of projecting Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the party’s face in UP. Prashant Kishor was instrumental in the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance in the 2017 assembly election. UP Congress leaders were chafing soon as PK and his team took over poll strategy, including the candidate selection process. The UP venture, however, turned out to be a disaster for PK. He could seek solace in Congress’ victory in Punjab, but it was no secret that he didn’t have his way with Capt. Amarinder Singh who had a mind of his own. With the poll strategist having rubbed Congress veterans in Punjab and UP the wrong way, the Gandhi family chose to let him go — something Nitish Kumar did two-and-a-half years later.
PK got new political patrons soon — Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and M.K. Stalin in Tamil Nadu. He hasn’t changed his style though, going by what rebel Trinamool leaders say publicly, and what Mamata loyalists say in private about him.
What makes Prashant Kishor unpopular
So, what makes Prashant Kishor so unpopular among second/third-rung party leaders? Their egos, in a nutshell. Seasoned politicians can’t accept the fact that a poll strategist, who himself never contested an election, should teach them lessons in politics. PK and his team, too, are on their own ego trip. They think they can make even a lamp post win, people associated with the I-PAC tell me. In West Bengal, I-PAC has deployed teams in every constituency, who work independently and don’t keep local leaders in the loop. Politicians are, therefore, not very amused. I-PAC has a swanky office in Salt Lake Sector 5 in Kolkata. If you go there, you’ll get a sense that some multinational IT company could be operating from there, with youngsters glued to laptop/desktop screens. There are no Trinamool leaders to be seen there.
With the high command eating out of his hand, thanks to his reputation as a formidable poll strategist, PK doesn’t have to indulge lesser mortals in a political party, making them envious and resentful. They also become insecure because his so-called ‘surveys’ and ‘feedbacks’ from the ground often result in denial of party tickets to them.
Not everyone in Trinamool Congress and other parties is convinced of this reputation. They have their own question: Would Modi lose without Prashant Kishor in 2014? Did Modi miss PK in 2019? If Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), and the Congress come together in Bihar, do you still need a Prashant Kishor to win? If he is such a genius, why couldn’t he make any difference to the Congress in UP?
As a Trinamool leader explained to me, the core of Prashant Kishor’s strategy is to put his bets on potential winners. “He strongly believes that a party must have a face to win. And the BJP has no face in West Bengal. To him, therefore, his bets on Didi are safe, no matter what happens later.” Similarly, he attached himself to Arvind Kejriwal just ahead of the Aam Aadmi Party wave during the 2020 Delhi Assembly election.
I am not very convinced by the TMC leader’s assessment of the poll strategist, given that PK has proved to be a force multiplier for many in elections. Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy was following in the footsteps of his father and would have gone on that famous padayatra, anyway. But the I-PAC’s contribution was the way it identified influencers and facilitated their meetings with Jagan. Of course, I-PAC had other contributions to make in the run-up to the election, but the Andhra CM has a sharp head on his shoulders. He knew the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) owed its success mainly to his and his late father’s popularity. Many I-PAC members were expecting to play a role in the government — as an overarching body that could oversee the implementation of his promises. But, according to YSRCP sources, Jagan wouldn’t make any such promise to Prashant Kishor. Even Modi didn’t offer any such role to Kishor or to his CAG after the election victory in 2014.
As for the Trinamool leader’s point about PK’s core strategy of betting on potential winners, he does seem to make right calls — barring the lapse in judgement in case of Rahul Gandhi’s Congress in UP.
No wonder, PK doesn’t want to have anything to do with the Congress anymore. Not even in Punjab.
Also read: Why ‘winners’ pick Prashant Kishor
Suddenly, odds seem to be stacking up against Mamata Banerjee, too, even though the absence of a CM face remains the BJP’s biggest handicap.
West Bengal election is crucial to PK’s reputation — to prove that he can fight against odds, too, as Amit Shah does. And that he makes winners, not the other way round.
Views are personal.