MANOJ C G: When you decided to join politics, there were reports of offers from the BJP. Why then did you join the JD(U)?
I joined the JD(U) because I wanted to work in Bihar. Also, I admire the work Nitish Kumar has done in the past 10-15 years. He is one of the finest chief ministers. The JD(U) is a small party but it doesn’t come with much baggage; it has a clean slate. Ideologically, I feel more connected to what they do. The primary idea, however, is to be close to the state of Bihar.
MANOJ C G: You joined the JD(U) on September 16 and became vice-president of the party next month. What do you bring to the JD(U) table?
You should ask Nitish Kumar that question. I have been working with the JD(U) in different capacities in the last three-four years. It is not a new association. I have always had a connect with the top leadership and Nitish Kumar. So it is not that I suddenly joined the party and became vice-president. But, for me, the designation is not that significant. The important thing is to be able to do what I want to do. Through this role, I want to open up politics to the youth. I have realised from my experience of working with the BJP and the Congress that it is very difficult to bring young, new people who are not connected to politics, into politics. They don’t know how to get into a party and, more importantly, into electoral politics. These are the two things which Nitishji has given me a free hand to do. We have made a statement, on record, that in the next two-three years we want the average age of the JD(U) candidate to come down to 45. So, in the next election that we fight, there will be 30-50 candidates who are newcomers. Rahul Gandhi tried this in 2007-08, through the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), but there weren’t many success stories. Next year, we are thinking of fighting the local body elections on the party symbol. Now imagine if we get 10,000 new people as sarpanchs, zila parishad presidents… This is what I want to dedicate my next two-three years to. And, that is why I joined the JD(U).
RAVISH TIWARI: You have been known to get together coalitions, like in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Also, you have said earlier that you are ideologically agnostic. Yet, now you have joined a party. How do you reconcile the last few years of your political journey?
I have never said that I’m ideologically agnostic. The media has said it. I have stated that my ideology is closer to Centre-Left. I am also a firm believer that having an ideology is very good, but it shouldn’t intoxicate you… You lose objectivity then. For instance, you are a Congress follower. Now, they don’t deliver but they want you to keep voting for them. I don’t think that is the right approach. Just because I believe in the BJP’s ideology, it doesn’t mean I can’t question them when they do something wrong.
On coalitions, I think, we are highly overrated in our ability to influence elections. They are won or lost by the leader/party. People like us, on the margins, bring some kind of order. In India, elections are so vast that no individual or organisation can claim to have a significant influence on them. I don’t think I was instrumental in the (BJP’s) 2014 victory or the alliances (in UP, Bihar)… We are there to organise and manage things in order to win.
LIZ MATHEW: How do you assess the importance of alliances in the 2019 elections?
Arithmetic alone might not be enough. You can have a big alliance but you need a narrative as well. My sense is that, by and large, the BJP is in the lead. But in our experience, you know you can win or lose an election in a matter of 10-12 days… So thinking it’s a done deal is premature. But, if the elections were held today, there is no doubt that the BJP will be in the lead, at least as the single largest party.
LIZ MATHEW: So you don’t see a mighty BJP winning 272-plus seats?
That’s very difficult. It has nothing to do with the leader or cadres or if the Opposition is weak or strong. Seventy per cent people in our country are not making even Rs 100 a day. It is very difficult to gauge their mind… they are voiceless. Those of us who are trying to gauge the popular sentiment/mood are mostly only capturing sentiments of those who have a voice. Around 700-800 million people don’t have a voice. Even if they do, they are not necessarily engaged in the political discourse. That’s why election results are surprising at times. These (voiceless) people are busy surviving, doing what is needed to feed themselves. They are not bothered about any election campaign.
Also, poor people might not express their political opinion, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have one. There is also a fear factor around the ruling party; no one wants to say negative things about them. But that doesn’t mean they will vote for the party.
So, in my opinion, the BJP is in the lead. But it would be wrong to say there is no challenge to them or that the BJP is sweeping the polls. If I were in the BJP, I would be wary of such sentiments.
NISHANT SHEKHAR: What are some of the key areas in which Nitish Kumar has excelled in Bihar?
Bihar needs to develop by leaps and bounds in the years to come. There are no two ways about it. But the yardstick to judge Nitish Kumar as a chief minister should be in terms of where he has started from.
Secondly, if someone were to write the history of this political era, Nitish Kumar would figure in the top five chief ministers in the last 15 years. Some people might rank him lower. In terms of economic data, Bihar has grown at the rate of 9.5 CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) compared to (the country’s) 7.5 CAGR. The growth rate of the state has been 2 per cent higher during Nitish’s rule versus what India has registered. If you look at per capita income growth — compared to the country’s 11 per cent — Bihar has seen 20 per cent growth. If you look at the poverty ratio decline among all the states, in the last 15 years, Bihar has registered the steepest decline.
During Independence, the gap between Bihar’s literacy level and India’s literacy level was 5 per cent. Between women and men too, the literacy gap was 5 per cent. At its worst, in 2004, when Nitish Kumar took over, this gap became 17 per cent. While the whole of India was getting better, Bihar was declining on a relative basis. Between 2004-14, the gap has narrowed down to 8 per cent. That is what Nitish Kumar has done. In terms of the crime rate, Bihar — which accounts for roughly 10 per cent of the total population — at its worst, in 2004, accounted for 20 per cent of the robberies etc recorded in India. This has gone down to 4 per cent. Then, how can one say that the law and order has become worse? When you judge a CM, you have to look at data and what they have delivered.
… Look at electricity. A lot is being said about the Centre electrifying 18,000 villages. Since 2004, in Bihar alone, 22,000 villages have been electrified. This month, it was announced that every household has been electrified, much ahead of UP.
But, gone are the days when you can ask the voter to vote for you for improving their situation. It’s time he (Nitish) sets a higher benchmark for himself, it’s time Bihar competes with mid-level states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, UP, rather than be compared to what it was like in the 1990s.
AAKASH JOSHI: How do you assess Bihar’s prohibition policy?
I believe in the freedom of choice, speech, religion, clothes, what you want to eat and drink… But there are two sides to the debate on prohibition. If it is implemented correctly at the ground level, it is advantageous to those at the bottom of the development unit. The challenge is in implementation. If there is no liquor available, it is beneficial politically, socially and economically. I’m a hundred per cent convinced of it. The problem is when the law exists and isn’t getting implemented… It’s a double-edged sword. In states such as Andhra Pradesh, where the policy was implemented long ago, it was slowly withdrawn. In Bihar, the draconian part, the criminality attached to prohibition, has been removed. People use Mahatma Gandhi’s words to enforce prohibition. But Gandhi said that people and not the State should do it.
MANOJ C G: Do you see a political narrative being built around the Ram temple issue? What is the JD(U)’s stand on it?
During every election, parties try to build a narrative which they think will work in their favour. I’m new to the JD(U) but, as far as the party is concerned, we believe the Supreme Court should decide and everyone must respect it. But if you are implying that we, being a part of the NDA, must decide… the party will deliberate on it at an appropriate forum. But I don’t see the JD(U) changing its position. In an alliance, there are some issues on which we are in agreement. But, being a separate party, there are also some issues we aren’t in agreement with. We will not change our stand on things we don’t agree with just because the BJP wants us to.
The BJP will do what they will do… We cannot stop an ordinance. With two MPs in the Lok Sabha and four-five MPs in the Rajya Sabha, the JD(U) can’t do anything to stop it beyond raising our voice and expressing what we believe is the right thing to do. We can express our opinion, state our preference, but we cannot force anything… that will be decided by the majority.
ANKITA DWIVEDI JOHRI: While you said it is leaders who win elections, a large part of the credit for Narendra Modi’s 2014 victory was given to the digital campaign run by your team. However, since then, the digital space has got saturated. Most politicians are on Facebook and Twitter now, interacting directly with the voters. How different will the role of the digital media be in the 2019 general elections?
Any social media platform is a tool for communication. I feel the novelty of the digital medium may have worn off, but the scale has become bigger. In 2014, the number of smartphones with Internet connection in India was around 4-5 crore. Now it is 35-40 crore. While 50 per cent of the electorate is not on any social media platform, the other 50 per cent are a part of it. More importantly, we should look at how data prices have gone down. In 2014, if I was to send a video to five crore people, even middle class, lower-middle class people would not have downloaded it as the data pack cost a lot. With the crash in data prices, people are consuming a lot more. So, anyone with the ability to communicate and connect through hand-held devices, will have an advantage.
Also, if I’m able to make short videos, I will be able to connect with people better than someone who is addressing a big rally. If you look at traditional parties such as the BJP and Congress, how many of them have the capacity to produce a short video? So if I’m advising them, I’ll tell them to create a video unit. Even traditional media channels are creating short videos. It’s a challenge, but if a party can do it, they’ll be able to influence public opinion in a bigger way. If you look at the data consumption pattern in the country, the poorer sections are consuming more of it than those who are well-off. Probably because people like us have access to various means such as TV… The have-nots have found cheap smartphones combined with almost free data. If I’m a smart campaigner and start pushing things that will interest this section, my opponent should be worried.
KAUSHIK DASGUPTA: As an alliance partner, you said you don’t agree with everything the BJP does. But over the past four years, there has been confusion over what the JD(U) agrees with. It appears that other than being anti-Lalu Prasad, there is nothing binding the BJP and JD(U).
We, in fact, had joined hands with Laluji at one point. On the question of changing sides… this is the reality of Indian politics. Take any party from Kerala to Kashmir — the DMK, PDP, Sharad Pawar, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati — leaders have switched sides in the last 15 years at least two-four times. This is not to say that what Nitish Kumar has done is right or wrong. Take for instance, Mr (Chandrababu) Naidu, who was with the National Front, then moved to United Front, then (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee and then to the Narendra Modi government. Now he’s championing the cause of those who want to defeat Modi. If you can trust him, then why not Nitish Kumar? For 18 years, he has been with the BJP. Then he left and formed an alliance with Laluji and won. And then, he left it. He has some explaining to do, mainly because a lot of people felt he would take on Modi. So when he turned from that position, people felt betrayed. But as per surveys and ground reports, him returning to the BJP is not as disliked in Bihar as it is disliked outside Bihar.
AMRITH LAL: You have mentioned the Lalu phenomenon. Can you explain the features of this phenomenon?
He represents a section of society in Bihar who, over a period of 10-15 years, through his arrival in politics, felt empowered. But, the problem with the phenomenon is that it was not always positive. So many other sections of society got disenfranchised. They got fearful and had to leave the state and suffered. Laluji is a phenomenon because an entire generation was affected by him. Even with the rise of the BJP and Mr Modi and 15 years of Nitish Kumar as chief minister, when people go to vote in Bihar, Laluji is an important factor for at least 60-70 per cent of the voters.
AMRITH LAL: Then, why did the JD(U) walk away from Lalu?
That’s for Nitish Kumar to answer… Ideally, if I were to advise him at that stage, I would do the same thing, but with one change — after forming the government with the BJP, I would have gone for an election. Politically, he would have been far more powerful if he had taken this decision and sought one more mandate from the people of Bihar. Because, then anyway he would have won. That is my assessment, which could be wrong.
MANOJ C G: Between 2014 and now, what are some of the things that have changed in India and Indian politics?
Digitisation has transformed things. Secondly, I hope now more people want to see realistic projections and promises rather than lofty dream-selling. You can see it on the ground. In the past four years people’s expectations have become a little bit more realistic and so I don’t think this will be a ‘wave’ election. Micro issues have become more important.
MANOJ C G: Have achhe din come?
That is for the people to judge. As a country, the difference now, in an electoral sense, is that it is very difficult to generate that kind of hype again where everything else became subservient to the fact that I want X leader as the PM. I don’t see that happening in 2019. Candidates will become much more important with the lack of that kind of hype. So there will be many more elections within elections. In 2014, we had one election.
Maybe Bihar will vote differently than UP this time. However, Mr Modi is still a big phenomenon, very popular, and the BJP machinery is very formidable. So, the elections will not become micro-micro, but I won’t be surprised if Bihar votes differently than UP, and Rajasthan votes differently than Gujarat. We will see more state-level variations than in 2014.
RAVISH TIWARI: How are the new set of leaders different from the older generation?
Personally, I would take the older lot much more seriously. The newer lot is neither connected to the grass-roots nor do they have the required intellectual rooting. So, if you ask me, Laluji is a much more formidable opponent or ally any day than Tejashwi Yadav. It’s not a commentary on Tejashwi, I don’t know, he might be better, but I’m talking in general. That is why Modi as a person and as a leader is so formidable. He has spent 15 years as a Sangh pracharak. That has given him first-hand experience of the social fabric of the grassroots. Then 15 years as an organiser. That gives him an understanding of how the political system operates in India. Then 15 years as an administrator. Put all these 45 years of experience on one side and tell me which other leader has this. It is unique. So, if you want to defeat him, you need that grass-roots understanding, you need the exposure, you need the administrative skill, you need the social understanding. That is why he’s so formidable as a challenger or an opponent.
If you want to judge the political spread or the might of a party, look at how many MLAs they have. Today, the BJP has 1,500 MLAs. The Congress, in its heyday, had 2,300… That’s why the challenge for Rahul Gandhi is much bigger. The Congress has been in decline not since 2014 or 2012. Since 1989, the Congress party has been steadily losing its MLAs. From 2,200, it has come down to 700. In between, they formed the government because they formed alliances and not because the party became strong. The BJP has moved from 600 to 1,500. Once they cross 1,500, they will be one of the central political forces.
I think for another 20 years, the BJP will be a central force and when someone comes as a challenger to them, they must look at this data.
RAVISH TIWARI: So, will we see Prashant Kishor strategising for Rahul Gandhi or Lalu Prasad in 2019…
I will not strategise for anyone. I don’t want to do it now. I’m done and dusted with being this freelance, in your words, ideology agnostic guy who takes crores of rupees, which haven’t actually come to me. Also, I have realised that you don’t have any control post a person’s victory… It’s a thankless job. If someone does badly, I get blamed, if they do well, they get the credit. So, I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to spend the next two-three years advising people who want to join politics.
If I can advise Modiji and Nitish Kumar, I can also advise those who want to become mukhiya. If I’m able to do this for 10,000 people in Bihar, I think it will open up a new beginning.