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The X factor: Is it time to take Prashant Kishor seriously?

Starting with 2012 as Modi's political aide, he has taken positions in varying roles in 9 elections.

Last Updated: Feb 23, 2020, 06.21 AM IST
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There’s something unsettling about the idea of Prashant Kishor. Here’s a man whose fundamental premise — that he helps politicians and parties win elections, for a fee — can seem to be thumbing its nose at democracy.

If elections can be won for a fee, then won’t they be reduced to bidding contests? It could be argued that Indian elections are to an extent a battle of financial muscle anyway, and it’s better that political parties invest in research, surveys and communication through a professional organisation than spend money trying to bribe voters.



Some of the discomfiture about him is also because while his methods have been used in elections elsewhere for decades, he virtually pioneered it in India.

The public opinion, such as it is, appears divided — he is both admired as a maverick and reviled as a charlatan, going by reactions to his tweets, comments on articles about him and other online chatter.

Swooning fans and committed haters jostle for primacy. “Don’t think you made X leader win; he would have won on his own” is a typical comment template. Another common take is that he has just been plain lucky. The misgivings, informed or motivated, have scarcely stopped the stunning rise of Prashant Kishor in India’s electoral arena.

At this moment, his track record is redoubtable. Starting with 2012, when he commenced work for the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as a political aide confined to the backroom, he has taken positions in varying roles in nine elections — the 2012 assembly and the 2014 Lok Sabha polls for Modi; for Nitish Kumar in Bihar in 2015; for Amarinder Singh in Punjab, and Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh in 2017; for Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal by-polls in 2019; and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi in 2020 — and lost just once (SP-Congress in Uttar Pradesh, 2017).

Things have now come to such a pass that there’s a veritable rush to hire him and his organisation Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) in states heading to elections. He will work for Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu — both heading to assembly polls next year.

Bihar, his home state where assembly polls are due in October, is awash with speculation on Kishor’s next steps. After playing a key role in forging an alliance between arch-rivals Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad and crafting its victory in 2015, Kishor took an unusual step and joined Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) as vice-president, and was immediately anointed by the media as Kumar’s political successor. Following a public clash over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Kumar expelled his erstwhile blue-eyed boy in January, freeing the strategist to forge his own path, come October.

Last week, Kishor announced Baat Bihar Ki, ostensibly a campaign to mobilise support to turn Bihar into one of India’s top 10 states on socioeconomic parameters, from the bottom where it finds itself today.

He is aiming to enlist the support of 10 million people in the next 100 days. “If they do so, then we will take a call,” he says, when asked whether this marks his own entry into electoral politics.

In a country where proximity even to a state cabinet minister is seen as a ticket to influence and fortune, Kishor has the ears of five serving chief ministers. Six, if DMK wins Tamil Nadu next year. If Mamata retains West Bengal next year and the DMK comes to power, nearly 40% of Indians will live in states whose CMs govern by the agenda set in consultation with Kishor. That¡¦s a formidable sweep of influence, by any measure.

Because he sometimes falls out with politicians he has helped win, Kishor has started building in a safety valve. The method of cementing his influence long after the campaign dust has settled started with Nitish Ke Saat Nischay- a clever pun that was also the seven-point governance agenda Kumar promised Bihar if elected to power. This was followed by Captain Ke Nau Nukte in Punjab, Jagan's Navratnalu in Andhra and Kejriwal Ke Dus Guarantee in Delhi.

These are public promises on which CMs ride to power. They could choose to ignore them, but that's electorally risky. These have serious implications. About 65% of Bihar's budget is said to be linked to the seven promises.

In Andhra Pradesh, it's higher. This means that an education minister in a state might come in to find that her budgets and discretion have been signed away during the campaign itself. The job is merely to ensure implementation over five years. Problematic for democracy, huge win for Kishor.

How does Kishor decide this agenda? He privileges the wisdom of crowds, captured through surveys and other data, over received wisdom and orthodoxies. In Bihar, for instance, his surveys showed that the single biggest issue people cared about was the lack of concrete drains. Another surprising finding was that while Kumar had improved Bihar's main roads, good roads only led up to the village.

The roads within the villages were not covered by any one scheme, and were left to the vagaries of Panchayati Raj. During floods, the absent roads and drainages made life in the villages miserable. The fixing of "naali-galli" became a key electoral promise, with massive budget allocations.

While one of Kishor's many amorphous principles is to never hang around once the election results are announced, his imprint remains in the governance agenda. In his case, power flows from bullet points.

Another aspect of his work that's not widely understood is the scale and uncommon structuring of the organisation that he runs but doesn't quite-the now 2,500-people strong I-PAC. Kishor is a mentor to I-PAC, and has nothing to do with it on paper. So political rivals can't bog Kishor down by unleashing agencies on the organisation.

For the fiscal ending March 31, 2019, Indian PAC Consulting Pvt Ltd, the company behind I-PAC, reported revenue of Rs. 63.6 crore and profit of Rs. 6.7 crore, according to data with the Registrar of Companies.

These rose from Rs. 24.6 crore and Rs. 2.7 crore respectively in 2017-18, Rs. 37 lakh and a loss of Rs. 2.6 crore in 2016-17, and Rs. 95 lakh and a loss of Rs. 90 lakh in 2015-16.

He controls I-PAC because no work would come to it without him. Kishor is able to attract hordes of talented young people from elite colleges and marquee workplaces to I-PAC, which he has instilled with a culture of hard work, quirks and necessary fictions, such as a veneer of autonomy.

In some ways, Kishor's real influence can be seen in the universal adoption of his methods, or what people imagine them to be. Nearly all political parties today do similar work either through in-house units or external agencies.

When someone like Andhra CM Jagan Reddy hires I-PAC two years ahead of an assembly election, he gets a seasoned and reliable set-up to put all the techniques of modern electioneering- focussing on swing seats, booth-level canvassing, WhatsApp based campaigning, surveys, the works- to work for him across every single constituency, with continuous monitoring of impact.

Both the knowhow and reliability are greater with these tactics than when a party relies on its own voluntary cadre. In Kishor's telling, I-PAC acts as a force multiplier for a party's existing cadre.

His desire is to demonstrate what such a set-up can accomplish in terms of execution, within a government. Topping all of this is Kishor's own earthy charisma and his ability to connect with political leaders. What can a 43-year old professional, blessed as he might be with boundless energy and formidable intellect, tell a politician who has lived among the people and sought mandates for decades, isn't wholly clear.

But there is no dearth of people lining up to listen.

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