The PK factor in elections

The PK factor in elections



A celebrated Indian editor once said that Bihar had at one time ruled over the country and that the Maurya and Maghadha empires had their centre in this small state. The state was also the site of such celebrated universities as Nalanda and Pataliputra, where scholars from across the world came, just as now they all converge at the elite institutions at Harvard or Yale. Even after Independence, till the late sixties, its universities were among the best and doctors from that state were held in such esteem they were much sought after. To get into the Bihar cadre was also at that time the ambition of every IAS recruit.

Somewhere along the way, in the late sixties perhaps, the state seems to have misplaced the plot, but not all has been lost it would seem; even now politicians and strategists from that state are setting the trend. And that should not be surprising because this state had been the birth place and cradle of religions like Buddhism and Jainism and Islam has three of its Shariefs situated here.

It should thus not be unusual that in the two decades of this century the state has contributed to the nation one of the most astute election strategists. The rise of Prashant Kishor has truly been meteoric. After a decade’s stint at the United Nations he became the strategist for Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The campaign he chalked out at that time did wonders and catapulted the BJP to power at the Centre when nobody ever gave it a faint chance. Since then he had been in much demand and, interestingly, he also halted the Modi roller coaster ride in Bihar two years later. After two miracle victories it is but natural that he would trip somewhere and this happened in Uttar Pradesh where his tactics for the Congress came a cropper with the BJP romping home.

Despite this minor hiccup Prasant has been much in demand ever since and had been acting as consultant to various parties and in states like Andhra and Rajasthan and Punjab. His latest avatar is in the state he had worked the miracle and crafted the ‘Mahagadhbandhan’(grand alliance). In Bihar the Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, another astute political manipulator, had now elevated Kishor to the position of the vice president of his Rashtriya Janata Dal (United)party, sidelining many of the veteran leaders and grassroots workers.

The strategist that he is, Kishor has, however, said that he will neither contest the Lok Sabha elections nor vie for a Rajya Sabha seat. Holding his first political meeting with 300 party office-bearers of the student and youth wings, he is reported to have said that he would be looking at strengthening the party’s organisational base apart from winning the elections.

For that purpose he wants the party workers to become the ‘eyes and ears’ of the government, though he made it clear that he does not favour the ‘CPI(M) model’ of a cadre-based party where ‘workers prevail over governance’.

According to an insider ‘Prashant discussed the CPI(M) model in which workers become very powerful’. He said while workers should be ‘the government’s ears and eyes, they must not become powerful at the expense of governance.’
Kishor had also given them two months to ensure that the JD(U) students’ wing has 2,500 active members and the youth wing 5,000 active members.

A JD(U) leader who attended the meeting said, ‘He cleared the suspense over contesting elections. Kishor made it clear that he is not interested in electoral politics – either at the state or the national level. He spoke about connecting with youths and making new leaders.’

The JD(U) leader quoted Kishor as saying that 25-30 new faces could be given a chance to contest the 2020 Bihar Assembly polls.

Born in 1977, Kishor, a public health expert had spent eight years working at the United Nations and later with helping the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) win an absolute majority in the 2014 elections. This was his second association with the party after successfully devising their campaign for the 2012 Gujarat Assembly elections which saw Modi become chief minister for the third time.

His work during the Gujarat elections of 2012, and the 2014 general elections had earned him the phrase as the ‘most trusted strategist in the Narendra Modi organisation’. Creator of several marketing and campaigning strategies that included the ‘chai pe charcha’, ‘Manthan’ and social media interventions, he also founded the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), an outfit of 200 young professionals from top colleges and companies that carried out BJP’s marketing and social media campaign.

Kishor broke away from the BJP in 2015 and reformulated the CAG as the Indian Political Action Committee, and joined Nitish Kumar and evolved strategies for the 2015 Bihar campaign. Again the next year, he joined the Congress to help Captain Amarinder Singh win the Punjab elections. That historic win has been to a large extent credited to the work he had done as well as that of his team. He was also employed by the Congress ahead of the UP Assembly elections but his magic didn’t work in Uttar Pradesh.

If in retrospect, one hails Modi's use of social media to expand his voter base, the credit to a large extent must go to Kishor. Influenced by former US President Barack Obama's use of the social media and communication strategies during his campaigns, Kishor has sought to bring in number crunchers, communication experts, media planners, technology, and surveyors to build the campaign.

His team came up with 'Chai pe charcha', and simultaneous projection of Modi's speeches through hologram technology, all imported from Madison Avenue advertisement techniques, though several members of the party, like Amit Shah, felt Kishor and his CAG did not play any significant role in BJP's victory. They felt that the brand had already been created by Narendra Modi himself.

That seems to have been the reason for his departure. Kishor is believed he told Modi, ‘When two brothers fail to get along, it is better for one of them to leave.’ A year later, the brother and his IPAC team landed in Bihar, this time to tackle the 2015 election.
This native son of Bihar helped Kumar secure a third consecutive term, defeating the BJP-led NDA and the saffron party failed even after Modi addressed nearly 30 election rallies. Here he had substituted Chai pe charcha with Parcha pe charcha for Kumar's campaign. Ever the clinical strategist he had sought feedback from people on the government's performance over the previous decade to plan their new strategy.

Kishor and team came up with the slogan ‘Bihar Mein Bahar Ho, Nitish Kumar Ho’ and used vibrant red and yellow colours on posters. He also devised the ‘Har Ghar Dastak’ (Knock on every door) campaign to help party workers establish closer connect with the masses. Among his other initiatives were GPS enabled bicycles and deployment of women to campaign from door to door.

The BJP had to accept grudgingly that while their leaders and cadres were relentlessly criss-crossing Bihar and delivering speeches, Kishor's campaign had helped cut through the fluff and connect with the people very quietly and more directly.

In 2016, Kishor moved to the Congress in Punjab to help Captain Amarinder Singh. Again his machinery worked the magic as the Congress received a historic win. Here his team introduced the ‘Coffee with Captain’ campaign, along with 'Punjab da Captain' revolving around the Chief Minister. He organised interactions of college students with Singh and appointed local 'kaptans' for the campaign. The Congress bagged an unprecedented 77 seats in the 117-seat Assembly.

He is now working on the campaign for the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh ahead of the Assembly polls in 2019. He had been working with Jaganmohan Reddy since last year.

Ever since adult franchise was introduced in the country, the campaigns have gone through a whole range of transformations. At that time the venerable Shankaracharya of Kanchi is supposed to have made a rather politically incorrect remark. He wondered how universal franchise would work effectively as there is a possibility of its misuse by crafty politicians at the expense of the gullible poor. He was hinting at the malpractices and bribery that would creep in.

If the Communist Party’s victory in Kerala in the fifties was historic, the first time a communist party was winning an election through the ballot anywhere in the world, and that too when the party had been banned, the victory of the newly formed Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 1967 in Tamil Nadu was equally epochal, the romping home of a bunch of students over a Congress party of stalwarts like Rajaji, Kamaraj and Bhaktavatsalam. The late sixties and seventies were a time of the caste consolidations and the JP movement and the emergence of parties like the Navnirman Samiti in Gujarat and Asom Gana Parishad, all spearheaded by students and youth.

The late seventies were a time of turbulence with schisms within the Congress and a combative Indira Gandhi splitting the party and forming new combinations. Young and untried leaders like Gundu Rao and Siddharta Shankar Ray and Solanki all worked out winning combinations. Thus were born the Kham (Khsatriya, Ahir, Harijans and Muslims) formulation in Gujarat and the winning blend of Muslims, Brahmins and Harijans in Uttar Pradesh to check the OBC surge. In Bihar, Karpoori Thakur had already worked out the caste configuration of the Yadavs, Muslim and Harijans against the dominant Rajput and Bhumihars. The ‘Kurmis component’ was one of the favourite phrases of election experts and a new species that cropped up around that time, the psephologists.

All these formations worked only for one or two elections at the most and the nineties changed all that, with the coming of the round the clock television news channels and the digital age brought in new innovations and new wizards. One of the most innovative of these campaigns was mounted by the rank outsider, the Aam Aadmi Party, with their white caps that swept Delhi and totally demolished the Congress that was in the saddle for three consecutive terms. Their innovation was to have commandeered auto rickshaws with the posters of the broom, their symbol, plastered behind the vehicle. While the garbage and rubble piled up on the Delhi streets these auto rickshaws swept through these streets and raised much dust. Mounting their campaign on the plank of anti-corruption, with an assortment of leaders like the yoga guru Ram Dev and advocate Prashant Bhushan and Anna Hazare and academic Yogendra Yadav and young leaders like Marlene Atish and Sishodia and Kumar Viswas and television presenter Ashutosh, it was a dazzlingly wide array of talent. Their rally against corruption at Ramlila Grounds recalled the JP rally at the same venue against the Emergency four decades ago. It was refreshing to see these young men and women in white caps manning the polling booths. But that movement was too good to last and schisms developed and most leaders broke away.

These were all good developments and were signs of the vibrant democratic process at work. But with only one minor difference, in that they never addressed the real issues that should be the concern of everybody, issues like poverty and the pauperisation of the countryside, the freakish weather pattern, the need to tackle basic problems like poverty and hunger and disease and finding jobs for the people. None of the miracle workers seem to have given a thought to these bread and butter issues and even IT gurus like Narayanamaurthy had only spoken of urbanisation and encouraging the service sector at the expense of farming and cottage and small industries that had always been the country’s strong point. When faint voices were heard of ‘palayan’ (depopulation of the hillsides) and nagarikaran (rampant urbanisation) these were dismissed as the ravings of cranks. But this precisely was what Gandhiji had always harped upon at a time when machines had not come to dominate as now.

So while Prasant Kishor might pull of another election victory, coin more catchy slogans and hoist more coloured flags and move on to other pastures, the vast hinterland might remain the same. The Shankaracharya’s misgivings might, after all, be not far off the mark and Nalanda might have to wait for some more time for its revival, despite all the ten years of efforts of Prof. Amartya Sen.

- S. Sivadas, Senior Journalist.

(The ideas expressed in the above article are those of the author)