Prashant Kishor: From Manna to Hoodoo at 40?
Once election whizkid, Kishor finds the going rough
NEW DELHI: At one level the political parties have been kind to supposed whizkid Prashant Kishor, but at another rather nasty and mean. In the process he appears more and more like a floating techie, caught in a political maze, unable to escape and yet not really sure whether it is worth the while (except financially of course) as the hoped for laurels are coming tinged with arsenic.
Kishor ---from Uttar Pradesh although his father worked in Bihar--is exactly 40 years old, and a household name in political circles. He has made good money of unknown amounts, but to be fair has ideas, is yuppy (for want of another word) in his approach---fashionable, materialistic, high tech. And as he proved to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given an unlimited source of funds and free play, he can work wonders with the political image.
So when the then Gujarat Chief Minister Modi brought him in---Kishor was assured of both of the last. He did not want for money, and he was given the freedom to follow his head. So when the Congress made fun of Modi’s ‘chai’ Kishor turned it into a huge advantage by starting the ‘chai pe charcha’ series; and was the first to harness not just the youth through his Citizens for Accountable Governance but also through the social media that he converted into a trendy, happening place for the Prime Minister. It was not about trolls at all, it was about positively projecting Modi, his vision of India, and highlighting his appeal to specific sections --in particular the youth.
Kishor has never spoken even in passing, but clearly PM Modi was a good candidate as he followed the young man and his team, and assured them the conditions through which they could work. And so a new brand was created, a national leader who could do no wrong. The team worked closely with the candidate, and so it was a big surprise when after the elections Kishor emerged footloose, and then abruptly announced his decision to work for Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal (U). At that time quite the opposite camp to the BJP. Rumours that always chase such events suggested that BJP president Amit Shah was not particularly fond of Kishor, and he was axed as a result. Who knows? We don’t and he certainly is not talking. But out he was.
How and why? We asked him after he had decided to create Brand Nitish, a political opponent of Modi and the BJP. Elementary, he said with the air of one wondering at such a question, when the answer was so obvious. I am a professional, I will work for anyone. Really? But what about the in depth information you get from one, won’t you be tempted to use that to prepare your strategy while working for the opponent? No, said Kishor clearly less human than the rest of us. He was in the business to promote the person and political party he had hitched himself to for the moment, not to trade secrets. But….. we spluttered but then gave up. And now realise that perhaps Kishor knew more than us, as Brand Nitish has merged into Brand Modi within a year of the Bihar polls.
Kishor of course found Bihar to be very different from the plush luxury of the Gujarat campaign. One, the budget was small and what was doled out to him kept getting reduced. And two, Nitish Kumar dogged by the terrier Lalu Yadav snapping at his heels did not have the space that Kishor works best from. So he had a little office in Patna, but given the limitations of power and the internet, was unable to whip up a strategy for backward, poor, caste ridden Bihar. At least not one that was visible in the field, with Nitish Kumar also reluctant to give up his hold on the state and the party to an outsider, no matter how soft talking and persuasive he might be. Lalu Yadav of course had little patience for such nautankis.
Kishor seemed to be chaffing at the bit as in the middle of the campaign he was in Delhi with KC Tyagi clearly being entrusted with his responsibility. So Tyagi organised a media interaction, where Kishor was not particularly forthcoming and ran into belligerent reporters who refused to accept his switch between Modi and Nitish Kumar as straight and kosher. The press conference was supposed to allay him, but clearly did the opposite and as the Bihar campaign progressed less and less was heard from Kishor.
A Janata Dal(U) leader who was full of praise for Kishor at the time was far more brutal just the other day when he said that the whizkid met his Waterloo in Bihar, and had little to do with Lalu and Nitish Kumar calling the shots. So somewhere along the way Kumar introduced Kishor to Rahul Gandhi and then came his next tryst with a clearly limited destiny.
Kishor hit it off with the Nehru-Gandhi siblings. So much so that he emerged as not just the media manager (as was the case with the more astute Modi) but as the ombudsman of the Congress, an overarching presence who was in charge of not just the media but of the fractious party in Uttar Pradesh---the elections he had been hired for---of candidates, and negotiations within. He was the Congress President. And more.
So in UP Kishor after a careful ‘study’ that ran into weeks, or was it months, emerged with the following:
Priyanka should be the head, the CM, the campaigner, the face. One would have expected Rahul Gandhi to be miffed, but he took it like a sportsman, and after a short period of sheer hysteria and excitement in the party this was nipped in the bud;
Okay, so a Brahmin should be the CM candidate for the Congress was the next Kishor nugget. So then there was this frantic search for a CM candidate, and the spotlight fell on Sheila Dikshit, the former CM of Delhi. After being literally pushed around by the Nehru-Gandhi family, this quiet, sophisticated politician was visibly reluctant. But was made to accept and there were these few days when she was taken around the state. It soon became clear that she barely had clout, was not seen as a Brahmin leader in UP in the classical sense, and without much ado somewhere, along the way she was dropped.
Kishor also tried to negotiate between the fractious factions of the Congress in the state but made little headway. He mapped UP and stared deciding on the candidates, that of course brought the winning Congress to its lowest ever numbers in the state. And at the same time while building the image of Rahul Gandhi he started the ‘khat yatra’ that had the Congress scion sitting on khats in village homes, but this exploded in the campaigns face when the media started insisting that the villagers were more interested in the khats than in Rahul Gandhi. He met with more success in organising Sonia Gandhi road show in Varanasi, but clearly this remained just an icing on a cake that had yet to be baked. In Varanasi the Congress sunk to a new low in the polls without an organisation and workers who work.
The Congress leaders speak out now, mincing no words about Kishor. He certainly earned no friends in the party, or for that matter in UP, being seen as a bit of a hoodoo and certainly not the manna that they had hoped for. A senior UP leader was categorical, “Kishor stole all our data at the instance of the Prime Minister.” Others echoed this, maintaining that the whizkid had never really left the PM. Right or wrong, this is the perception in the party where the state leaders insist that he extended his brief. But then none of them know what his brief was.
The angst of the Congress in UP did not stop Amarinder Singh from hiring Kishor in Punjab. Here too it was not completely smooth sailing, with the campaign being punctuated repeatedly by reports of friction between Singh contesting for Chief Minister, and Kishor. He has extended his brief, was the beef with the Congress party actually having to issue a statement saying that all was well between Singh and Kishor. This was after the whizkid had tried to bring about a reconciliation between Singh and a couple of expelled leaders of the Congress. For Singh’s image Kishor started the “coffee with Captain” series, a bit of a joke in the largely lassi consuming state. It did not work with Singh actually managing his own campaign, according to a close supporter.
Clearly once he has done his job, the political leaders want to get rid of poor Kishor fast, lest the credit of victory go to him. That happened in Gujarat, Bihar and Punjab from where he was sent packing even before he could pack his bags.
Now Kishor is with the YSR Congress preparing for the state elections that are expected to be held with the Lok Sabha polls. Here everyone is enthusiastic about him, as he is being given the space and the money to build the image of the comparatively small regional party. Kishor is already in position in Hyderabad, He has already started training the workers, and is looking at solid issues for strategic changes, such as the loan waiver impact on farmers. It seems here Kishor might even be writing the manifesto. The idea, said a party MP, is to defeat the Telugu Desam. And ally instead with the BJP? Let us see, was the response.