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Monday, Nov 18, 2019

Is Prashant Kishor facing his toughest challenge in Bengal? | Opinion

As Bengal’s ruling party is passing through the opening sequences of the ‘Didike Bolo’ and ‘Gramey Cholo’ campaigns to reestablish contact with the masses, this anecdote reflects the challenges Prashant Kishor, the poll strategist roped in to embellish Mamata Banerjee’s image and make her battle-ready before the 2021 Assembly elections, is facing.

opinion Updated: Aug 21, 2019 15:08 IST
Avijit Ghosal
Avijit Ghosal
Hinustan Times, Kolkata
Election strategist Prashant Kishor  Kishor helped Narendra Modi and the BJP strike gold in 2012 Gujarat elections and 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav’s mahagathbandhan in 2015, captain Amarinder Singh in 2017 and Jagan Mohan Reddy in 2019.
Election strategist Prashant Kishor Kishor helped Narendra Modi and the BJP strike gold in 2012 Gujarat elections and 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav’s mahagathbandhan in 2015, captain Amarinder Singh in 2017 and Jagan Mohan Reddy in 2019.(PTI File Photo )
         

After she stormed in power in Bengal in May 2011, Mamata Banerjee started a unique practice. She began visiting the districts, including the remotest corners of the state, and began holding meetings that were open to all. She would not go alone. The senior-most officers of the administration, including the chief secretary and home secretary, would accompany her along with the district administration and local elected representatives at all levels.

“These meetings were like aam durbars. She would ask the local people to narrate whatever problems they were facing and would promise immediate redressal. Did Jyoti Basu, or Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee (former chief ministers), come to you. See, I have brought the entire Writers’ Building (state secretariat) here, she would say pointing at the top officials of the state,” recalled a senior bureaucrat who served in both the Left Front and the Trinamool Congress regimes.

As Bengal’s ruling party is passing through the opening sequences of the ‘Didike Bolo’ and ‘Gramey Cholo’ campaigns to reestablish contact with the masses, this anecdote reflects the challenges Prashant Kishor, the poll strategist roped in to embellish Mamata Banerjee’s image and make her battle-ready before the 2021 Assembly elections, is facing.

Former Kolkata mayor, minister and confidant of Mamata Banerjee, Sovan Chatterjee, said that if a party with a proclaimed USP of grassroots connect needs outside help, it signals extreme danger for the party.

Former principal of Presidency College and professor of political science, Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, has no hesitation in describing Bengal as Kishor’s toughest challenge yet.

Also read: Why Mamata Banerjee needs an image makeover | Opinion

“Prashant Kishor is a professional. He has clever tactics up his sleeve. But these seem to be more appropriate for developed democracies. In Bengal, where democracy has suffered a lot in the hands of the Trinamool Congress, it does not seem very likely that these will succeed,” thinks Mukhopadhyay.

The twin programmes of ‘Didike Bolo’ and ‘Gramey Cholo’ reveal two realities. One, the leader whose USP was grassroots connect, seems to have lost much of her most powerful appeal. Two, she and her party thinktank has become bankrupt in terms of ideas that has compelled Mamata Banerjee to appoint a consultant to face the challenge from the BJP.

Is Mamata Banerjee a fading brand in search of a compelling marketing communication?

I-PAC executives think so. They think they have a political Photoshop needed for image correction on a grand scale. They also feel that two years is a long enough time to use their image correcting skills deftly. “We have done it earlier and to brilliant results. See our track record. Jaganmohan Reddy is the latest example,” said one.

Indeed, Kishor’s record is quite impressive. Apart from the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections where the Congress turned out a pathetic show, none of his earlier clients let him down, or Kishor did not let any of his clients down.

Kishor helped Narendra Modi and the BJP strike gold in 2012 Gujarat elections and 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav’s mahagathbandhan in 2015, captain Amarinder Singh in 2017 and Jagan Mohan Reddy in 2019.

Mamata Banerjee’s experience would be no different in 2021, Kishor’s men say.

But then, analysts point out that comparisons trigger more questions than assurances.

Suman Bhattacharya, political analyst and a keen observer of the Bharatiya Janata Party, thinks Kishor certainly has impressive credentials, but the challenge he is up against in Bengal is formidable.

“BJP is continuously shifting the goal post in Bengal. While it began with corruption, the party is now keen to extract the gains of abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir,” said Bhattacharya.

His logic: I-PAC will have to continuously modify and fine tune its strategy according to what the BJP does.

There are others who think that the question is fundamentally political, and cannot be tackled only by trying an image makeover.

There are deep wounds in the psyche of the people of the state who have been deprived of their right to vote at the village self-governance level, the levels that deal with most of their day to day problems.

Moreover, the corruption of ruling party leaders has not only left their own scar, but also denied many the delivery of welfare schemes that the chief minister launched with great fanfare.

The ‘Didike Bolo’ and ‘Gramey Cholo’ campaigns are instruments of venting out steam generated down the years by major discontents such as corruption by ruling party leaders and strong-arm tactics by them to prevent a large section of the opposition candidates from filing nomination and the electorate from casting votes.

Most of the ministers and legislators who are visiting the villages are being greeted by a volley of hostile questions from every corner. Some like Mukhopadhyay thinks it might open a Pandora’s box. “It is impossible to address the lakhs of grievances that are pouring in,” said the veteran professor.

The opposition, too, is not sitting quietly. The BJP has already planned to launch a campaign to tap the discontent of those who won’t find redressal even after telling Didi.

Kishor’s men counter: “This is just the beginning. More would be rolled out according to the situation. Many of the troubles are being solved through the administrative machinery.”

A campaign is being contemplated is one highlighting the outcomes of the “Didike Bolo’ campaign.

Once the initial chapters like ‘Didke Bolo’ and ‘Gramey Cholo’ are over, Kishor’s men have to contend with more sensitive and political issues such as Mamata Banerjee’s image as a politician who goes out of her way to appease Muslims – something that the BJP has deftly exploited.

“Kishor’s men have to deal with issues such as her opposition to getting rid of infiltrators. Image correction might become increasingly tricky in such an environment,” said a bureaucrat.

Moreover, a batsman is as good as the bowler allows him to be. After the stunning Lok Sabha election triumph, the saffron machinery is more formidable than what Kishor’s earlier clients had to face.

To add to BJP’s tailwind, the party secured more than 40 per cent votes in the Lok Sabha polls in the state. The highest score earlier was about 17 per cent.

No Prashant Kishor would not be able to save TMC believe senior state BJP leaders such as state unit president Dilip Ghosh and national secretary Rahul Sinha.

Without a doubt in the next few months as Kishor’s men gets more entrenched in the battle, Bengal will witness an increasing roll out of image politics that will debate style versus substance and personality versus policy, making 43-year-old Kishor sweat for every rupee he would earn from Mamata Banerjee’s party.