From playing a key role in shaping up Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial campaign in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, to taking a political plunge four years later by joining the Janata Dal (U) and leaving it in a huff, to negotiating with the Congress for an entry over the last two years, Prashant Kishor has covered a long distance in Indian politics in the last eight years. The ace poll strategist who has also successfully handled election campaigns of a few regional parties like the YSR Congress, DMK, and Trinamool Congress in recent years, was all set to join the Congress. But after a failed attempt last year, last week Kishor said “no” to the Congress party’s offer, thus ending the suspense over his induction into the party besides aborting his plans to revive the Congress.
Apparently, media reports suggest that the prime reason behind Kishor declining Congress’s offer had to do with the party’s unwillingness to undertake sweeping organisational changes suggested by him. Kishor was offered a spot in the party’s “Empowered Action Group” (EAG). But he declined the offer, saying, “more than me, the party needs leadership and collective will to fix the deep-rooted structural problems through transformational reforms.” What is known is the fact that he had a definite and exhaustive plan, which he has submitted to the party’s leadership, to “reincarnate” the Congress. But what is not known is why both sides were reluctant to take the leap of faith that was needed to close the deal.
Over the last month, Kishor had a series of meetings with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and made a detailed presentation about his “Mission 2024”, which was followed by a series of internal meetings between Mrs. Gandhi and the party’s senior leaders. Seemingly, media reports suggest that there was a lot of resistance from a section of Congress leaders on Kishor joining the party on ideological grounds as also over his links to political rivals like TMC chief Mamata Banerjee, YSR chief Jagan Mohan Reddy, and TRS supremo K Chandrashekhar Rao. What was also a roadblock in the Kishor-Congress talks was deep reservation among some senior Congress leaders about allowing a free hand to a newcomer like Kishor, who wanted to join the Congress on his own terms.
Thus, a trust deficit on both sides was the reason behind the deadlock between the two, as the Congress felt Kishor did not appear wholly on board, while the former was not keen on joining the party without a free hand to make the Congress battle-ready for 2024. Seen as an unpredictable and ambitious man who wanted to play a role larger than that of a mere consultant, which added to the discomfort of the Congress old-timers, Kishor’s big bang changes did not go down well with many in the party. Given its entrenched way of functioning, the Congress was in favour of incremental changes against Kishor’s drastic organisational overhaul approach.
The election strategist’s plan for the party’s rejuvenation apparently included a leadership revamp, under which all but mass leaders would be sidelined. That would include most leaders in key teams, including the Working Committee. This was a clear no for Congress, though the party has acknowledged the need for a thorough change because of a series of defeats since 2014. In an interview with BBC Hindi, Kishor said he didn’t join the Congress due to a disagreement over the implementation of a revival plan proposed by him. The refusal was also partly due to the party’s “problematic” decision to form the EAG.
“My blueprint was all about how the Congress should regain its glory days; it wasn’t about winning one or two elections. It was to help the Congress resurrect itself as a strong political force in the country,” Kishor told BBC. He is right when he says that Congress needs leadership and a collective will to find a solution to the party’s deep-rooted structural problems. With or without Kishor on board, the will to undertake transformational reforms is the need of the hour. But the question is whether Congress has the will to go for a thorough organisational overhaul.
Despite a strong case, there seems to be reluctance on the part of Congress to effect drastic structural changes. This means with a few incremental changes the grand old party expects to stay relevant in politics and electoral battles. But that’s not enough. The party has been humiliated enough election after election. It needs to do things differently now. It can’t do the same thing again and again and expect a different result. Kishore has said the Congress is important for India and he hopes “they will implement the strategy they agreed on”. Equally important is the leadership issue. The party needs a strong leader to navigate it through the rough and tumble of Indian politics that’s primarily driven by personality, message, and perception.
Judging by what has come out in the public domain, many of Kishor’s suggestions are sound and sensible. Some are common-sensical and self-evident. Kishor is a man of data, analytics, and strategy. He analyses raw data to draw conclusions and create strategies. Some Congress leaders like Digvijaya Singh and P Chidambaram have admitted that they were impressed by Kishor’s large database and his ability to generate new information. But Digvijaya also downplayed the importance of Kishor’s data mining and analysis saying the Congress knew many of the things. There is little doubt that many of the senior Congress leaders are wise men with immense experience.
But the “we knew it all” approach is a problem because Congress has done little to fight the ruling dispensation despite knowing a lot of things. It simply didn’t seem to have a strategy to use the data at hand to improve its electoral prospects in national and state elections. The fact that Congress opened its doors again for Kishor after a failed attempt last year indicates the party is desperately seeking change. It has no one else to blame but itself if it does not come out of the mess even now.
(The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule)