What the rise of Prashant Kishor says about the state of electoral politics today
In Borgen, In the Danish television series about politics, there is a pivotal scene: during a debate between various candidates for the presidency of the Prime Minister, the main character, Birgitte Nyborg, leaves the script. She recounts how she struggled with the scripted answers crafted by her spin-doctors to questions about the complex challenges of the multi-ethnic society that Denmark has become. His sincere speech surprised more than one and, on election day, his moderate party remained the most important, whereas before no one had imagined his chances. Essentially, she hits what many communications professionals call the sweet spot, managing to get her complex point across in a way that relates to the voter.
This is the place targeted by every political party, with slogans, slogans, political announcements, pledges, etc.
It was in pursuit of this very pleasant place that the leaders of Congress, India’s great old party, attended a series of presentations this month in the public eye by poll strategist Prashant Kishor. It came after a beating in recent assembly elections heightened questions about the party’s ability to revive after its losses from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
This isn’t the first time Congress has looked at consultants and lateral candidacies; nor is it the first time the party will try to work with Mr. Kishor. He managed campaigns for the 2017 elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab but parted ways after Mr Kishor felt he had not received much credit for the victory in the Punjab at the time, and received too much blame for the losses in UP and Uttarakhand. .
What is new this time around is not that Congress is looking for outside talent to help it, but the fact that Mr. Kishor is aiming to join the party and that his strategic interventions go far beyond the strategies campaign for what is considered the domain. the organization of the party: selection of candidates. Mr. Kishor has worked within this broader framework for other parties, including the Janata Dal (U) in 2015, the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) in 2019, the Aam Aadmi Party in 2020, and the DMK and the Trinamool Congress in 2021. In fact, he even did it in 2017 for Amarinder Singh in Punjab, but it was on behalf of the Congress leader and not at the request of the party.
A longer delay
Prashant Kishor, and his then organization Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), burst onto the political scene as a complement to Narendra Modi’s juggernaut-like campaign for the 2014 parliamentary elections, which took the BJP to a full majority in Lok Sabha. It captured the popular imagination, but political advice has a longer history in India.
One of the earliest entries of spin-doctors and professional consultants, albeit concerning sketchy aspects of a party’s election campaign, began with the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. His 1989 “My Heart Beats for India” campaign, engineered by Rediffusion, may have had uneven success, but was the first “shot” in the “professionalization” of the space. Gandhi had also welcomed side talents like Sam Pitroda, but again sectorally.
In the late 1990s, under then Congress President Sitaram Kesri and his Vice President Jitendra Prasada, the party hired a public relations company, much like the current Congress, to point out what was wrong and what could be done. The PR firm’s report, calling the then party leadership jaded, was leaked to newspapers, causing an uproar inside. It wasn’t just leadership that the PR firm identified, there was also an investigation into the choice of snacks served during briefings at the Congressional desk. This report was buried, but soon Sonia Gandhi took over as President of Congress.
In fact, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it became common for ad agencies, media buyers, and spin-docs to pitch advertising deals to the BJP and Congress ahead of elections. Political parties have begun to pay more attention to data collection and analysis, psephology and surveys. For example, GVL Narasimha Rao, currently a Rajya Sabha MP belonging to the BJP, started out as a psephologist.
The Kishor variant
Prashant Kishor’s genre of all-on-a-platter election services began in 2013 in the run-up to the 2014 general election when he teamed up with Modi’s campaign, and has come to include innovations like “Chai Pe Charcha” (conversations over tea) programs and holograms. The Modi campaign was practically mounted alongside the BJP organization, in fact.
Mr. Kishor thought he would be given a mission after the new government was sworn in. But in a cadre-based party now fully swayed by Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah, who took over the presidency from the BJP after the victory, there was little space. According to the story, with the end of the 2014 campaign, Mr Kishor asked Mr Shah what he thought would happen after June, a roundabout way of inquiring about his own future. Mr. Shah is supposed to have replied that after June there is July. Be that as it may, Mr. Kishor left the BJP fold soon after. Mr. Shah then brought the Association of Billion Minds (ABM) into the BJP. ABM founding member Sunil Kanugolu is currently in charge of Congress strategy for Karnataka and Telangana.
Don’t blame the consultant
Elders view the advent of professional consultants and strategists with dread, fearing it will erode a political party’s ideology and undermine grassroots political work. If so, the consultant is not to blame. Political parties, other than those based on cadres, became dynastic and closed systems of certain families establishing an internal oligarchy. They operate as internal courts, with loyalty taking precedence over merit. The presence of loyalists can reassure management, it does not help parties win elections.
And this is the intersection where political parties and external strategists meet, to hunt down the sweet spot of electoral validation, while keeping party equations intact. And that’s where we are in India’s electoral politics.