Prashant Kishor enjoys challenges.
For an international public health professional to dive into the complex and rather unpredictable world of India’s electoral politics would not have been an easy decision. For someone with access and confidence of Narendra Modi, it would have not been easy to walk away and begin working with his bête-noire Nitish Kumar at the end of 2014. Do remember the Bihar battle was far from favorable for the two-term CM, suffering from a Lok Sabha rout at that stage.
And for Kishor, who now has a cushy official advisory position in the Bihar government, to walk back into the electoral minefield – for a party whose obituary has been written by many in India’s most difficult state – may reek of political suicide. But that is precisely what he has done.
Ever since the Bihar elections, the question of what he would do next has been a matter of intense speculation in political circles. But Kishor was clear that whatever he did had to be a building block for the big battle of 2019. And that is why he has been in conversation with the Congress leadership to work in some capacity with the party in reviving his fortunes. This conversation has happened with the explicit consent of Nitish Kumar – who recognises that despite its diminished strength, the Congress garnered over 10 crore votes in the 2014 elections. No alternative to the BJP is possible without some kind of Congress revival.
And while Kishor was given the mandate of advising Captain Amarinder Singh for the Punjab elections, the big deal was struck last week. The party has finally given him the mandate of shepherding the 2017 UP elections. Kishor starts on the job from Monday.
But he would know that this is a challenge like no other.
For one, Kishor has so far worked with dominant political players with a substantial power base of their own – be it Modi, or Nitish, or even Captain Singh in Punjab. In UP, he will confront a Congress party structure which is a marginal player, with barely any charismatic state-level leaders, and a defunct organisation. The party has not been in power in the state on its own ever since the late 80s. Being out of power, and being seen as a force with little prospect of returning to power, unleashes a vicious cycle. Patronage networks dry up. Strong local figures don’t see an incentive in joining the party – for it is not winnable and they cannot rise up – and they would rather invest their lot with the dominant players. If powerful local figures don’t join, communities do not get mobilised, local businessmen have little reason to provide funds, and the organisation becomes inert. And with such a dynamic, there is little chance of coming back to power. As a result, an entire generation has grown up in UP without knowing the Congress. Rahul Gandhi could not break this cycle in 2012. Kishor’s challenge is breaking this cycle.
Second, the task is made more difficult because the social alliance which drove the Congress to power in the state post-independence till the 80s is now in tatters. The party relied on an alliance of upper-castes, Muslims and Dalits. Ever since the rise of the BJP during the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, the upper castes shifted to the party. They may have flirted with BSP or SP during different points, but make no mistake, their preferred choice has been the BJP. Congress retains pockets of upper-caste loyalty in areas where the party’s Brahman leaders have a legacy – but this is too few and far between. Muslims got alienated after what they saw as Congress duplicity during the Babri Masjid destruction – and found in Mulayam Singh their leader. And Dalits shifted almost entirely to Mayawati. The dominant backward castes were never Congress’ original base – Yadavs remain with SP, Jats have shifted between RLD and now BJP, and all parties are in intense competition for the conglomeration of other backward castes, smaller and scattered across the state.
And that is the question Kishor will have to answer. What is the Congress’ core base? And how will it win it back? Will it be the Muslims because they want to bank on a national force to counter BJP? But Muslims will do so only if they are confident that Congress is in a position to defeat the BJP – otherwise they would see it as a ‘wasted vote’. Will it be the upper castes, in particular the Brahmans? What incentive do they have in backing Congress? Why should Dalits leave Mayawati?
The third factor which makes UP a challenge for the Congress is the absence of a ‘face’. Indeed, this is the same challenge the BJP is confronting in the state. BSP and SP have Mayawati and the Mulayam-Akhilesh duo. Despite their baggage, the leaders provide the base with a figure to rally around and voters have a sense of who they would get if they vote for these parties. Kishor is a strong believer in the increasingly presidential form of Indian elections, and helped personalise the campaign around both Modi and Nitish. He believes that voters seek a face, because this reassures them, and it also enhances accountability – for it is more difficult to seek answers from an amorphous party structure. Congress does not have a state leader who can match Akhilesh or Mayawati.
And so here is the Congress’ challenge in the state – weak organisation, no core vote, no leader in a huge state, which has different dynamics across its political geography from the west to the east.
One obvious way in which Kishor will tackle this challenge is by working on the message. Projecting Congress as a new force, rather than an old party, could fetch dividends. By painting SP, BSP and BJP as forces UP’s voters have tested repeatedly over the last two decades with little gains, Congress will play the ‘anti-establishment’ card in the state.
But in itself, this is not enough.
To be a decisive player, Congress needs to entirely disrupt the game, like Modi did in 2014. It has to break the almost solely caste-focused nature of the election; it needs to have a message that resonates across groups and regions; and it needs to have a new leader. Whether you like the dynasty or not, only a person from the family can probably provide energy to the party cadre and bring the party into the race. And across UP Congress, the only name one hears is that of Priyanka Gandhi. If she enters the race as a CM candidate, then Kishor - with his careful mapping of constituencies, parallel campaign machinery, media campaign, and messaging – will have something to sell. Otherwise, the product is too rusted and defective.
The other path for the Congress is to reconcile to being a secondary player in the state, and moderate its ambitions. This would mean seeking an alliance. Here, Congress has an edge because there is a greater chance of Muslim consolidation behind any alliance of which it is a part. Congress has flirted with the idea of a tie-up with BSP – but Mayawati does not see the logic in a pre-poll alliance because her votes get transferred, while the voters of the ally do not necessarily vote for her party. Mayawati is also rather confident of striking it on her own at the moment, and it is only if she feels vulnerable closer to the election date that she may open up to the idea.
Prashant Kishor’s team will begin sitting in the Congress war room at Gurudwara Rakabganj Road. Disruption, on a war-scale, is the only way for the party to become a major player in India’s battleground state.