Decoding Prashant Kishor

He is despised by the right-wing for leaving BJP and working with the opposition, disliked by the liberals for his love-hate relationship with the Congress, and looked down on by intellectuals for making a business out of election campaigns. The man with many mixed opinions across the political aisle. PK is much more than what meets the eye; let us try to understand him and his politics.

Kishor started his journey as a public health professional working for the United Nations before becoming one of the Modi campaign’s key players in 2014. It was 2011, and Kishor was in his early 30s when he started working with the Modi government of Gujarat and eventually with Modi directly to drive his election campaign. Finally, Modi and the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 became Kishor’s vehicle to achieve the national limelight and launch I-PAC. The situation is such that Modi’s name cannot be detached from Kishor’s personality even after eight years, despite not sharing any professional relationship anymore. Eventually, party after the party started hiring I-PAC as it gained relevance by bringing the US Presidential style campaigns to India. Indian elections, be it state or Lok Sabha, have been personality-driven for some time now.

There was a natural fit to such campaigning styles. Kishor would place an already famous face at the centre of a campaign and drive the whole narrative around it. This is the most central piece in understanding Kishor. His entire genius of election-winning lies in the lynchpin of personality politics. The other way to investigate this is, as Kishor says in the interview with Karan Thapar in Apr’2020, people like him are vastly overrated. Kishor believes that politicians don’t win because of people like him; they succeed because of their work. Kishor’s job is to provide political aid, ideation, and campaign strategy to an already successful politician. In a nutshell, Kishor always picks winners. If you are a politician who is an ace in their constituency and want to find someone to take your election campaign where you have an edge to a confirmed victory, Kishor is your man. Kishor will enhance your probability of winning. To give an analogy, he cannot turn an amateur cricketer into Virat Kohli, but he can help Virat Kohli (or Sharma) win the World Cup. This is something we need to understand about his work and consultancy. You are the product; Kishor is the salesman, and Kishor will only sell you if you are sellable.

Kishor hesitates to work with parties which don’t have a popular face which is sellable to the masses or parties with high anti-incumbency. In Kishor’s own words

‘I apply two things, first whether as a voter I would like to vote for this party or not. That is the most fundamental thing I apply. The second thing is enough freedom to work with a guy to set their agenda for the next five years.’

  • Prashant Kishor on The Wire, Apr’2020

A few things become apparent with this statement. One, the party needs to be able to win basis on its goodwill and commitments. Second, Kishor is a lone warrior. He likes working alone and wants to take direction directly from the central figure and no one else. Also, he would take minimum directions as he needs that creative freedom to pursue the campaign. The system should comply with him. Through all of his interviews, Kishor appears as someone who is driven by action and goals and believes in arriving quickly to the point. In return, he needs, or perhaps demands space and freedom.

In all these years, Kishor has not demonstrated that he is a team player (maybe he is, but we don’t know). That he can work with a team, who are his equals. This fact often makes senior party leaders uncomfortable. Kishor comes as an outsider with his technology and aims to disrupt the system. This usually doesn’t go well with traditional parties like the Congress, who are generally slow in technology adoption or agile in moving to new ways of doing old things.

The 4 Ms of Kishor’s strategy

Kishor’s strategy involves Messenger, Message, Machinery, and Mechanics. To sum up, it’s the face, the narrative, the cadre, and the campaign. If Kishor believes all 3 or 4 Ms can be implemented well, he will take a shot at you; otherwise, he won’t. He accepts rejecting more parties than buying them.

When I met him at an event organised by his team called ‘Youth in Politics’ in 2018, where he wanted to support those youngsters who were keen to enter politics but didn’t know where to begin. Kishor emphasised to the crowd the importance of building a supporter base initially, he mentioned whether you win elections or lose. Still, if you have the support of the people, you will always be relevant in politics. He gave the example of Modi and Mayawati. This was classic first principle thinking that many budding politicians miss. At the same time, this also talks about his world view of politics and consultancy. Any party with a central leader as its pillar and a popular base is a natural fit for Kishor, be it AAP, JD(U), TMC, DMK etc. While parties such as Congress etc., where a face is missing, would be a challenge for Kishor to market, as proven in the UP elections of 2017.

BJP & Kishor

Kishor, on records, says that he stopped working with Modi because he wanted to create a lateral entry structure in PMO where the best minds in the country can directly impact the governance. Probably Modi stalled him, but I feel there is more truth to that.

I feel, As Amit Shah was elevated to the post of the BJP President in July’14 and Modi assumed the role of the Prime Minister in May’14, it was expected that if Kishor continued working with BJP, his reporting must be to Amit Shah. He probably saw Amit Shah as his equal and maybe even less competent. Even for Modi’s 2014 campaign, he reported to him directly and had an independent area of functioning. He was not required to collaborate extensively with other members of Team Modi. Kishor himself has admitted in that Lallantop interview of March 2019 that he is a difficult person to work with, and he needs freedom or, as others may say ‘a free hand’. As we see him working with other parties in the future the equation was similar. He was presented as a poll consultant internally and a consultant typically is presented as an important external to the existing employees of any organisation, and everyone is expected to follow their guidelines (Often even the leadership). Kishor was comfortable in these set-ups.

The way I look into things, BJP had no particular use of Prashant Kishor post-2014. The main job was done, and Modi was PM. Their confidence was at an all-time high, they had cracked the code, and they had enough resources and intellect to help them win elections again and again. My assumption is Modi and Kishor shared a repo which ensured Kishor isn’t critical of the BJP, at least in the first four years of Modi becoming PM. Kishor was also on a high. He was also getting back-to-back successes (I don’t intend to diminish his struggle to make a mark in this field). First with Nitish in 2015 in Bihar, then with Amarinder in 2017 in Punjab etc. He was someone who clearly showed an inclination to work with any political party, and it was purely professional.  He was also finding his place in politics and questioning where he belongs between all of this.

BJP supporters distrusted him as he began his work with their political rivals. To be fair to Prashant, this was a complicated business model that he was running, and no one had seen this in India before. It had raised eyebrows. Modi and Kishor continued to share a healthy relationship. Kishor admits meeting him often in Delhi, but the professional relationship was over. I assume Modi must have thought of customising some roles that didn’t interest him. I don’t know their private talks, but knowing Modi and Kishor, these roles could be the chief strategist for Modi’s International events or something completely different or nothing at all. We can only speculate.

Congress and Kishor

In 2016, Congress hired him for the upcoming 2017 UP elections. This was the peak of Modi Mania. Demonetization and Surgical strikes had set in motion the forthcoming UP elections. The CM face was not announced in UP for BJP, so it was naturally on Modi to win it for BJP. Kishor was against an uphill task. Congress was still in the delusion of the 2014 Lok Sabha defeat and had no idea that the R/W rath set in motion during the Babri demolition had finally reached its destination. Kishor tried to implement the multiple strategies, but the 4Ms were not in place for Congress. It neither had a face, nor a cadre, not even a message; it existed in the fight. It wasn’t like the other times when an already strong party wanted to seal the victory. Odds were against Kishor. Congress entered the election as the 4th preference. It is almost impossible to expect it to win a state like UP in mere 10-12 months of strategy. This was a big lesson for Kishor, and post that, he became more selective while choosing parties to work with. I don’t think even Kishor would have voted for Congress in that UP election. Congress and Kishor moved apart until another UP election five years down the road.

The Turning Point

Finally, in 2018 Kishor joined JD(U) as a National Vice President. He did this because he aligned with JD(U) on the ideological front, and he had a special place for Bihar in his heart as he spent a significant time of his childhood there. He wanted to do something for Bihar. This can also be validated by his progressive and non-political initiative called ‘Baat Bihar Ki’. He got a million people on board to discuss Bihar’s future and its relative comparison with other states. We don’t know its current form and shape, but it was an initiative in the right direction. Also, on 3rd May 2022, Kishor launched yet another initiative focused on Bihar called ‘Jan Swaraj’. We are yet to learn its details, but it appears like a revamp of ‘Baat Bihar Ki’.

Kishor had no idea what he was getting into from a political standpoint when he joined JD(U). Lateral entry may work in government jobs but not in political parties. You must be seasoned to be holding such a high post. Nitish was progressive in that sense and gave Kishor an opportunity (One cannot simply credit Nitish. There must be something that he was expecting of high value in return, but credit to him to think differently).

I asked Prashant Kishor about his ideology in that 2018 event. He said he is centre-left and believes that when millions of Indians live at an income below INR 100 per day, the government needs to play a more significant role in society. Essentially talking about a larger government. I was satisfied with his answer, and I deduced that his association with Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha was not ideological but purely professional. In my experience of witnessing him via the multiple interviews he has given, I often found him rational, objective, modest, and black & white in his approach. Also, he was diplomatic and knew how to tackle tricky questions. He always respected all political leaders he had worked for and never fell into the trap that journalists laid for him.

The Kishor of 2018 was becoming ideological and probably idealistic as well. He was now the witness of the naked BJP politics, and the rhetoric of othering was clearly in front of him. He was uncomfortable but primarily silent. This was my analysis and deduction of him then.

2019 Lok Sabha elections were over, and Kishor was a mere spectator, probably critically examining the opposition’s issues or handling the JD(U) election campaign in Bihar or his initiatives. It was a lean period for him from the public eye until CAA happened.

Within six months of winning the second consecutive Lok Sabha victory, BJP was not shy of its ideology. It moved the controversial Citizenship amendment bill, which later turned into an Act known as the CAA and coupled it with the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC), which put the burden of proof on the individual to confirm their citizenship. Slowly, state after state CMs responded that they would not support BJP in using bureaucracy and vilifying the minorities. Bihar, with its 17 million Muslims, eyes were on Nitish. Also, Bihar elections were around the corner, and Nitish’s prospects were not looking that great. Being the seasoned politician he is, he brushed away the possibility of implementing NRC but supported CAA in the parliament. This was a balancing act. Ideologically, the CAA was more critical of BJP as it talked about the citizenship of persecuted Hindus on paper. Nitish’s stand may not be principled and inconsistent with its secular ideology, but he was just a politician. Things didn’t go well with PK. Nitish expected PK to be his spokesperson and explain his stance, but it created a further rift. Indian leaders don’t like to be questioned, and asking a critical question on ideological commitment means crossing that very line.

Amit Shah is a shrewd and cunning politician. He capitalised on this opportunity and asked Nitish to expel PK. We don’t know whether PK understood the writing on the wall, but the message was loud and clear. In the end, in Indian politics staying in power matters despite all ideals and ideologies. Rare are men and women who let go of power for their purposes. PK knew the risks, and he gambled his power for his ideals. This almost immediately cut short his political career (at least for now). Such is the symphony of politics. Kishor is here to play the long game, and with age on his side, we may see him in a new political avatar by 2024.

2020 and beyond

Now we enter 2020, and two critical elections are around the corner. Delhi in Feb 2020 and Bengal in April 2021. He has already helped Jagan win Andra in 2019. Kishore was now back to business, and he probably believed in influencing the system from the outside. This was his strength, and probably he put his political ambitions on hold for a while. He was now more frequent in Delhi, more vocal against the BJP, giving more interviews to Delhi media and even media that are outrightly anti-establishment like The Wire. He was signalling something. He was signalling his ideological stance. During many media bites, you can find Kishor saying that the Modi government want to control the way you think, what you eat, who are you friends with etc. I always noticed that he tried to downplay his role in the elections and never positioned himself as bigger or brighter than a critical politician. This was intelligent politics, and credit to Kishor for being or at least appearing humble.

Kishor handsomely won Delhi for AAP and Bengal for Mamta. The halt on the BJP juggernaut was a relief to many, and the mighty BJP, which once was perceived undisputed, was suddenly on the back foot. Both the victories were extraordinary as the Delhi election came in the backdrop of CAA/NRC protests, and a BJP victory in Delhi where the Shaheen Bagh protests were happening could be considered the support to CAA/NRC. Similarly, BJP has been eyeing Bengal for a very long time. It constantly built on the narrative of ‘Bangladeshi’ and of ‘appeasement politics’ against Mamta. In both these elections, the loss was embarrassing for BJP. Delhi municipality, State, and Centre ruling all three remained a distant dream for BJP.

This was also when Kishor commented on Amit Shah for the first time, publicly calling him an overrated Poll Manager. Same time Kishor announced his break and almost like a retirement of sorts. He declared that he would no longer work in his previous avatar of election strategist/political aid to any, leaving this space. He still maintains this stance.

We don’t hear much from PK post-Bengal; some murmurs and talks that he intends to join Congress and ‘revive’ the grand old party. That is about it. Some words here and there of his prospects of working with Congress. Also, some Congress leaders call him BJP’s trojan horse and create doubt in people’s minds about his credibility and intentions. The stamp on his career called Modi refused to go away. The logo which gave him the honour once was now serving as a stain. We see some efforts by Kishor to continue elevating Mamta in national politics. He also challenged Congress as a principal opposition and questioned its right to hold that space. This goes on for a while, and more or less, life resumes to normal. This was Dec’21.

2022 – Return of BJP’s juggernaut

In March’22, BJP was back. UP, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur elections happen, and Congress is wiped. Existential crisis hits Congress. They lose the state they have taken for granted – Punjab to AAP. UP, Goa, Uttarakhand – nothing significant. Kishor crosses Modi publicly and firmly for the first time when Modi says that 2024 is sealed after the thumping victory in all these states. Kishor calls this a false narrative and ‘decisive psychological advantage’. He also addressed Modi as ‘Saheb’ in a tweet. A quirky yet respectful label. Kishor is smart that way and plays well with words.

This was THE wake-up call for Congress, and we see Sonia Gandhi being proactive in taking measures to revive the party. This is when taking an external help comes in, and Prashant Kishor is called to have a discussion. On 22nd April 2022, he gave a final proposal to Congress with all the possible measures in his mind that could help revive the party and bring back its glory days.

No one in the public domain knows the detail. Still, from what I have gathered from all the interviews of Kishor and shared knowledge, the proposals revolved around a few essential aspects—reviving CWC, Congress’s Presidential crisis, how to increase nationwide membership, improving social media, improving communications, and establishing the narrative. There was broad consensus on Kishor’s suggestions, and he was also asked to join a particular purpose vehicle designed to implement these changes called the ‘Empowered Action Group (EAG)’.

Finally, on 26th April 2022, we learn that he has politely refused to join Congress for his reasons. Through a BBC interview on 29th April, we know his detailed reasons for not joining Congress.

PK’s reasoning for not joining Congress

Kishor refused to join Congress, stating that EAG doesn’t have constitutional validity and EAG, at best, would be an advisory body. There are multiple ways to look at this, and there is a lot to unpack here.

First things first, power resides where men believe it resides. If the Congress President has mandated EAG to take decisive measures, it would possibly supersede all other bodies. On the flip side, Congress is entrenched in its bureaucracy, so may PK’s fear of becoming a rubber stamp body be proper. It isn’t easy to change a party like Congress.

Second, Kishor could have joined and tested the waters for a few months, understood the practical challenges in execution and slowly asked the Congress President to make those changes for him. If 6-8 months down the line things don’t change, maybe quitting would seem reasonable.

Third, Kishor had other plans and didn’t want to join Congress. He has recently launched his initiative for Bihar called ‘Jan Swaraj’. Joining Congress would alter his plans.

Fourth and the most important. If we were to believe Kishor blindly and the constitutional provision of EAG was the fact of the matter, then we are not thinking straight about what Kishor is hinting at. I will try to dig deep here. Congress as a party stopped working with its constitutional directions from long back, and that culture of following its constitution properly was long over since Sonia Gandhi’s realm. Giving a constitutional provision to EAG could mean reviving the culture of following, pursuing, and practising the Congress constitution, especially regarding the distribution of powers.

First and foremost is the election of the Congress President. Maybe Kishor is hinting that unless the elections happen and the Congress constitution is set in practice again, all reforms are meaningless. As Kishor says in one of his interviews with Times Now on 29th Apr 2022, he believed in transformative reforms, more like an extensive bang reform that could change Congress. Congress may not be transformative and would broadly remain with the status-quo and some incremental reforms. His tweet also highlighted ‘leadership and collective will to fix the deep-rooted structural problems through transformational reforms’. The tweet serves far more context now when we look at it holistically.

Lastly, let us look at some of the critical narratives circulating social media post his refusal to join Congress.

BJP’s trojan horse

This is the most significant accusation against him.  It appears more of a conspiracy theory to me. A few things to note are that he worked with Mamta just a few months ago. Mamta/TMC are core rivals of the BJP, and Bengal was critical for them. Why didn’t this trojan horse help BJP defeat Mamta? The same goes for Kejriwal. You can take the theory too far and say that he is trying to win the opposition’s trust. Even if this is the case, the tradeoffs are not worth it. So you are saying I will let go of Delhi and Bengal so that eventually, before 2024, I can place Kishor within the Congress leadership. I fail to understand what this will achieve. One uses Trojan Horses against a strong enemy, not the already fallen one. Also, his embarrassing expulsion from the JD(U). This would have never happened if he was indeed BJP’s trojan horse.

Kishor’s unprofessionalism.

Kishor goes to Congress and then comes back and criticises them. Many Congress supporters and liberals accuse Kishor of this. While there is some merit in the judgement, we often miss the complex relationship here. Congress is a client for Kishor and a significant political force for our democracy which is not functioning. Also, it refuses to change. This is quite frustrating. Kishor puts some public pressure on them. He is unconventional. That’s all. Maybe you don’t appreciate it, but I would do the same if I was at his place. When Kishor is criticizing Congress, he is doing this in the spirit of a bringing a necessary change in our democracy, where Congress is a big shareholder.

There are no ED/CBI raids against him and I-PAC.

First, the benchmark against the ruling party is very low. Second, the political dividends of sending an ED to Mamta are very high compared to I-PAC. No one cares in the BJP cadre if Kishor gets raided. We are now underestimating Modi’s political acumen. Doing this will push Kishor deep into the opposition’s sphere of influence. Also, many in BJP doesn’t consider him as critical. At best, he is a rogue element for them. Lastly, PK’s diplomacy is the key here. He has friends across party lines and even in BJP. Even in his criticism, he doesn’t disrespect Modi, carefully choosing words. The day his political following gets into BJP’s ambition, you will see raids on him. Who knows, they may even arrest him.

Conclusion

Prashant Kishor, like all, is not perfect; he has his ways of doing things. It is tough to put him in an ideological box or as a party’s affiliate. His new and different functioning methods may not go well with the conventional mechanisms. Rational actors are often misjudged by the present as they refuse to oblige to the purity requirements of a committed group. What are PK’s true intentions? Only time will tell; for now, he is just a round peg in a square hole called Indian politics.

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