Is the long innings of a decade as a consultant to various political parties, except for part of Prashant Kishor’s time in Bihar, about to come to an end?
There is a growing view that Kishor is good when the going is good for his client, and not so much when the road is rocky and uphill. At the same time, his ability to sharpen political messages, coin appropriate slogans, and analyse data is much admired. The presumption that he knows better than seasoned politicians who have put in the time and hard work to reach their positions however always works against him. This, despite his always working with the supreme leader and his or her immediate power structure. This infighting is also what brings him down, time and again.
Kishor did advise Captain Amarinder Singh’s Punjab government in 2016-17, and the central leadership in 2021. Amarinder Singh won handsomely. The effort did not go so well with the Gandhi family and the coterie around them in 2021. Kishor was ejected. Probably just as well for him, because it was early enough. In 2022, all five state Assembly elections were lost, with a zero performance or very poor showing for the Congress.
Likely at their wits’ end, the Gandhi family is willing, via interim president Sonia Gandhi, once again, to countenance Prashant Kishor and his ideas. However, Sonia Gandhi is 75 and in poor health. She would not want to take on further terms at the helm of the party, given a choice in the matter.
For Kishor, weary of selling his wares as a travelling salesman going all over the country for every election, is it now thought better to settle down? Prashant Kishor was reinvented as a Congress panjandrum, with specific responsibilities and performance expectations.
After all, Kishor and his organisation are aware of the benefits and pitfalls of being an outside force with unstitched, undefined powers. Irrespective of Kishor and his I-Pac’s performance, or indeed electoral results obtained, the role seems to end on the very day the votes are counted. And they begin to sour, via criticism from party leaders, well before that.
The one exception in his career was with Nitish Kumar and his successful Mahagathbandan in Bihar, but that stint as vice-president in the JDU ended abruptly in 2022. Reason: Party leaders who criticised Kishor. And this is despite Bihar being his native state.
They say the best political minds in the country come from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But nowadays, we can see Gujarat is nothing to sniff at as well.
So can Kishor, as, say, a Congress general secretary, with the stamp and wax seal of the Gandhi family backing him, be better positioned to weave together an Opposition alliance for the general elections of 2024?
All the political pundits agree that an Opposition construct without the Congress will not be sufficient, as the arithmetic and the authenticity will not suffice. Kishor does speak of the unique political space the Congress occupies, despite its poor showing of late. Is he right, or was that in a very different “Idea of India” that no longer exists, even as many disrupted and ousted by the changes, find it difficult to accept.
And yet, the biggest impediment to Congress’ involvement in an Opposition alliance has been, thus far, Rahul Gandhi, a fourth-generation scion of the family that gave us three prime ministers. He wants to lead it, and inevitably be the prime ministerial candidate. The trouble is, he is widely perceived as not being up to the task.
Can Prashant Kishor somehow retain Rahul Gandhi at the head of the Opposition alliance, and, for that matter, his own head in the party, and yet not project him as the prime ministerial candidate? What can the Gandhi family countenance, even as it stubbornly clings to power in the nearly destroyed party. Critics like the G-21 within the party have not made a dent.
Will Rahul Gandhi himself agree to such a fate? It is suggested that Rahul Gandhi does not want Prashant Kishor at all, and the coterie around him had him thrown out in 2021. However, in recent days, Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra want to give it another go, even as Rahul Gandhi has gone abroad on yet another of his mysterious and private foreign visits.
Besides, can Kishor get other constituents, some of whom aspire to the pole position themselves, to agree to this? Perhaps his main focus will be on how to get the Congress wins in 2024 up to a respectable total in three digits. He may prefer to keep things vague on an alliance till after the elections. If the Congress has more than 100 seats, it will automatically be a strong contender for the leadership.
Can there be someone else from the Congress in an echo of the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi dyarchy that might be acceptable as the prime ministerial candidate? In those days, the Congress had a lion’s share of the seats in Parliament, in the UPA tally. Can those sorts of numbers be replicated in 2024? Given the sorry state of its election machinery at present it will be difficult. Besides we haven’t once mentioned the formidable RSS/BJP electoral machine and funding.
As a precursor, there are a number of Assembly elections late this year and in 2023. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in 2022, in which both AAP and Congress will contest, and then Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in 2023.
Can the Congress, with Kishor on board, do well enough to actually bag one or more of the states currently with the BJP? It seems unlikely, but even a better showing could help Kishor’s credibility.
If Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh, or both, are lost however, Kishor’s days in Congress may be numbered. Unfortunately, in or out of the party, once an election strategist, always thought of as one.
Unless compensation comes, say, via Karnataka, a money-generating state, one in which the Congress has solid minority backing. It is badly needed, given its empty coffers.
Gujarat has been with BJP for over 20 years, but who can pry it loose? If there are any opposition seats won, again by wooing the minorities, tribals, and perhaps the Patidars, they are likely to be won by the AAP.
Depending on how these Assembly elections go for the Congress, perceptions could change for the better or worse in the Opposition ranks. Will any attempt to put in place a remote control in the hands of the Gandhi family end up breaking rather than making for Opposition unity?
The buzz is in terms of organising one-on-one contests between the BJP and the Congress in as many seats as possible. This presupposes other parties will stay away to prevent cutting into each other’s votes. I can’t see a resurgent and ambitious AAP agreeing to this in view of a near headless-toothless Congress.
Mamata Banerjee of the TMC has long advocated that the Opposition should let its strongest constituents contest on their own turf without cutting into their votes. So, the TMC in West Bengal. The DMK in Tamil Nadu, and so on. But the Congress has no pucca turf it can call its own anymore. It gets a tally based on a few seats from everywhere, and the one or two states it still might retain going forward.
Banerjee also seemed to suggest that the political party that garners the most number of Lok Sabha seats should be allowed to lay claim to the prime minister’s slot, in the event of a BJP defeat. However, this was after her thumping win in West Bengal against the BJP, and before pulling a set of blanks in Tripura and Goa. Her one-time acolyte, Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP, has similar ideas, particularly after winning Punjab convincingly.
In all this, Prashant Kishor’s usefulness lies in the fact that he has worked with many of the dramatis personae. He can, therefore, keep tweaking and nuancing the pulls and pressures in the lead up to the elections. He can jet around like Kissinger carrying missives and suggestions between the chief ministers.
However, his disadvantage will be the perception that now he comes as a Congressman, no longer as a detached consultant.
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The writer is a Delhi-based commentator on political and economic affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.
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