The Congress has pulled off a coup of sorts by hiring Prashant Kishor, the hot poster boy of election strategy, for its Assembly elections in Punjab next year.
Kishor is widely credited for his role in the success of Nitish Kumar in the Bihar Assembly election last year, in the victory of Narendra Modi in the Gujarat Assembly election in 2012, and in propelling the latter as a prime ministerial candidate in 2014.
Thirty-seven-years old and Bihar born, Prashant Kishor is a public health policy expert who worked for the UN in francophone Africa until he was hired by Narendra Modi as a policy consultant ahead of the Assembly election in Gujarat in 2012.
Once Kishor was drafted, Modi realized the man’s talent for election strategy and moved him into his election war room. Modi won that election to complete a hat trick as chief minister in Gujarat and then successfully bid for power in New Delhi, aided by Kishor’s backroom marshalling of social media and data crunching talent.
Kishor then set up his own team called India Political Action Group (IPAC) and was hired by Nitish Kumar for the Bihar Assembly election last year. That move was a resounding success as well and the JD(U) chieftain was able to stop the Narendra Modi juggernaut at the gates of Patna.
Now Kishor has hitched his wagon to the Congress.
This is love at third sight
It has taken three overtures from Kishor for the Congress to fall to his charms. In 2007, he worked for a while with Rahul Gandhi but things didn’t jell. Then in 2011, he wrote to Manmohan Singh offering his perspective, but got no reply. He then sent his ideas to Narendra Modi in Gujarat and was promptly picked up.
What will he do for the Congress?
In the light of the work Prashant Kishor has done for Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar, here’s what we predict about his association with the Congress campaign for Punjab 2017. Extensive use of social media and employment of alumni from IIT/IIMs is not now de rigueur, but what can expect from this betrothal?
1. 24x7 access to Amarinder Singh
Both in Gujarat and Patna, Kishor insisted and got unhindered access to the leader of the campaign. He’s not a guy who’ll wait in the anteroom. Modi and Nitish both set him up in their official residences, never more than a shout away. He’ll want the same access to Amrinder Singh.
2. The leader, stupid. Not the party
Both in Bihar and Gujarat, Prashant Kishor’s success came from projecting one individual rather than an entire party gerontocracy. In Gujarat, it was Narendra Modi and in Bihar Nitish Kumar. Kishor’s tactics are to separate the leader from the gerontocracy crowding any party.
In Bihar, Nitish’s posters gave no space to any other leaders of the Maha Gathbandhan and in Gujarat, he built up Modi so large that the BJP had to willy nilly adopt him as its leadership candidate.
3. Use the government, work off-government
So far, all of Kishor’s successes have come in association with a client who’s in power -- again Modi and Nitish. It’s been reported that his condition for working with Nitish was that the latter would have to dislodge Jitan Ram Manjhi and take the reins of government himself.
But within government, he likes to plough his own furrow, unfettered by bureaucracy. In all his campaigns, Kishor employed large teams of talented people reporting directly to him.
In Bihar, while Nitish engaged Kishor, the budget of the information and public relations department was increased 15 times.
On the other hand, the centre piece of Kishor’s election strategy in Gujarat and Bihar was to start off-government initiatives to project his client in the manner he chooses. Working with Modi, he started Citizens for Accountable Governance under the rubric of he ran his signature initiatives such as Chai pe Charcha, the movement to build a statue of Sardar Patel, massive public meetings with high-tech gadgetry etc.
4. New media, people media
The conventional canvassing tools in Indian election campaigns have been public meetings, padayatras, posters, advertising, etc. That’s passé, and taken for granted. Kishor has used social media – Facebook, WhatsApp, the works -- to reach voters directly and trigger debates among them along desired lines. For instance, he used google ads to reach Bihar-specific websites. And his canvassing vehicles were bicycles rather than carcades.
5. Colour is crucial
Colour is a major element in Prashant Kishor’s tactical palette. In Bihar he persuaded Nitish to drop the JD(U)’s dowdy green flag and switch to a distinctive red. It served to separate Nitish from the RJD’s green and signaled change and independence to the voters. It also presented Nitish as a bold alternative to the BJP’s saffron.
Kishor’s colour tactics aren’t entirely original in Indian politics. K Chandrasekhar Rao used pink to build his movement for a separate state of Telangana, and Mayawati flew a blue flag on her march to power in Uttar Pradesh.
This said, what are Kishor’s colour tactics going to be in Punjab? The Congress colours are already there. Will he design a new colour scheme for Amarinder Singh?
6. Mind, Punjab 2017 is different
Kishor’s successes have so far been with clients in power. For Punjab 2017, he’ll have to work with Amrinder Singh, who’s in the opposition, but more importantly, is vulnerable to advice from the Congress High Command. Kishor may not get the operating room he would like.