What Prashant Kishor in Bengal tells us about poll strategists in the Modi era

Following BJP’s unprecedented inroads in West Bengal in the recent Lok Sabha polls, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has roped in political strategist Prashant Kishor, to bring his expertise to TMC, ahead of the Assembly polls due in the state in 2021.

It just so happens that Kishor is presently the national vice-president of NDA ally JD(U) in Bihar. But, sources say that his days in the party are numbered, following the widely talked-about meeting with Banerjee in Kolkata on Thursday.

Kishor has worked for NDA, UPA and independent parties in the past.

Also known as the Chanakya of Indian politics, Kishor will officially start working with Banerjee next month, ANI reported, quoting official sources. His team arrived in Kolkata on Friday, according to a Times of India report.

All you need to know about Kishor

A famed strategist associated with I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee), Kishor emerged on the political scene as one of the architects of the BJP’s stunning 2014 victory. However, Kishor’s first major campaign was in 2011, when he scripted the victory of Narendra Modi in Gujarat for a third term.

Also known as PK, the strategist with a stellar record entered active politics for the first time last year, joining the Nitish Kumar-led party as an activist in 2018.

Making him the JD(U) vice president, Kumar had then claimed that “he is the future,” although he later acknowledged inducting him into the fold only on former BJP chief Amit Shah’s request.

Kishor’s history with the Bihar Chief Minister, however, dates back to 2015, when he played an instrumental role patching together Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD and the JD(U)’s Grand Alliance before the Assembly polls that year.

Now the question of his departure from the JD(U) has raised doubts about the party’s future in the BJP-led NDA coalition that forms the ruling majority in the Parliament.

Many observers are reading the meeting between Banerjee and Kishor as a way of mending relations between former friends (Banerjee and Kumar) that the Bihar CM may need in the event of his exit from the NDA.

Kishor had said in 2017, “Nitish Kumar should have sought a fresh mandate instead of making an alliance with the BJP in 2017.”

Incidentally, that wasn’t a very good year for his career in strategising; despite his counsel, Congress lost massively in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Kishor was not included in the team that negotiated the seat-sharing agreement between the JD(U) and BJP; he was largely absent from campaigns as well.

Kishor then left for Andhra Pradesh, where he worked for Jagan Mohan Reddy of the YSRCP that has came out with flying colours in both the Parliamentary and Assembly elections — bagging 151 out of 175 Assembly seats, leaving TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu high and dry.

Now, apart from the TMC, he is also said to have teamed up with the Shiv Sena.

How can he help Didi? By dusting off street politics.

For Banerjee, the massive reverses her party faced against the saffron wave poses a grave danger to its prospects in the state assembly.

Compared to 2014 when TMC had won 34 seats, it won only 22 this time around, while BJP won 18 seats, displacing the Left front and Congress to become the primary Opposition in the state. It had won just 2 seats last time.

It will take a Herculean effort, therefore, to turn the saffron tide around. The odds are not in Banerjee’s favour and the BJP is convinced it can beat her at the state level if it can keep its momentum going.

Invigorating the youth wing of Trinamool (TMCP) to take on the RSS-led ABVP may be something Kishor can help with. As the man in charge of revitalising the youth wing of JD(U), he had done a remarkable job scripting important victories for it in the Patna University Student Union election.

He should also know a thing or two about keeping incumbent chief ministers in power, just like he has done for Punjab CM Amarinder Singh in 2017. Furthermore, I-PAC’s experience will yield specific strategies based on research-driven analysis of constituency-wise demography and the opponent’s profile.

Role of a political strategist in the Modi era

Kishor’s entry into the TMC fold marks a clear departure from Banerjee’s poll strategies thus far, who did not require a political strategist to propel her party to successive victories before.

“But politics has changed and she (Mamata) has realised that. It is not enough to know your state, know your issues and know the people. When data is being used by parties, all your knowledge means very little,” a Trinamool leader told News18.

“The fact that the BJP won 18 seats in the Lok Sabha polls, many of them with a margin of less than 1% makes it very clear that traditional form of street politics that has dominated Bengal is no longer going to be enough,” the TMC leader added.

The Bengal results have become the locii for any discussion on how BJP’s messaging centered on muscular nationalism and conservatism has proved extremely effective.

Earlier this week, CPI(M) secretary Sitaram Yechury confessed that many people who voted for the Left even in the 2016 Bengal Assembly polls, voted for BJP in the Lok Sabha polls this summer. Conservatism has also gripped the state with reports of lynching, right-wing trolls, and threats of beef ban emerging for the first time in Kolkata.

Banerjee has been relentlessly attacking the BJP since the results.

Recently, she criticised the party for pumping enormous sums of money into the elections. This came on the heels of a report that claimed that the BJP spent close to Rs 27,000 crore in the recently-concluded Lok Sabha elections, which accounted for 45% of the total political spending by all parties for campaigning.

Selling politics

Since the NDA government’s rise to power at the Centre in 2014, politicking has never been the same. Scores of analyses will tell you that the BJP has soared on the plank of a personality cult propelled by excellent branding and communication.

Studies say that the contemporary voter behaves more like a consumer who is more likely to buy into the ideology of a successful political brand based on the message it sends (just like an advertised commodity) and, only when they are convinced, they vote for that party or its candidate. It worked for Barrack Obama, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin and it seems to be working for Narendra Modi.

According to AdAge India, the current Indian government has been spending Rs 10-13 billion every year since they came to power, with most of it aimed at digital marketing and advertisements.

With the rise of emotional branding and political marketing, consulting firms that offer crucial branding advice have mushroomed across the country over the last decade. During the last two Lok Sabha elections and numerous state assembly polls in between, political strategists have been on the road, using data to drive campaigns that can help swing polls.

In Punjab, fledgling consulting firm PoliticalEdge came up with important insights for Congress leader Amit Vij to unseat sitting BJP MLA Ashwani Kumar Sharma.

  • To focus on youth and promise to industrialise and create jobs
  • To use his personality trait of being humble and soft-spoken to differentiate him from others
  • To spend 18 hours daily in rigorous door-to-door house campaign in order to appear as a regular politician.

Kishor is similarly expected to work on Trinamool’s image after identifying and analysing the factors that went against it in the recent polls. I-PAC will also carve out ways for Banerjee’s schemes to gain more popularity among the masses, improve their online and offline outreach to voters, possibly using memes and catchy messages.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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