Team 178: Faces behind Grand Alliance’s victory in Bihar polls

With the RJD and the JD(U) pulling off a spectacular victory in the Bihar Assembly elections, meet the backroom heads behind the triumph.

Updated: November 15, 2015 7:39:19 am

“He is my Prashant Kishor. He is from Mahua, my constituency,” says Tej Pratap Yadav, the elder of RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s two sons, dragging Rakesh Roy, 27, by the arm and posing with him for a group photograph. Rakesh is embarrassed about the spotlight and soon slips into the crowd of people at 10, Circular Road, the Patna residence of Lalu and Rabri Devi.

Uday Shankar, Tej Pratap’s campaign manager, too is glad that the photo session has ended. He is happier to talk about the Grand Alliance’s victory: “Lalu Prasad ka surface aur Nitish Kumar ka face, bigada Narendra Modi ka base”.

The Maha Gathbandhan’s resounding victory in the Bihar Assembly elections is now being attributed to some smart campaigning by the JD(U) and the RJD. Though Nitish Kumar’s poll strategist Prashant Kishor is seen as the face of that campaign, there are many others, mostly unknown, who contributed to the win

10, Circular Road

Bihar, Bihar elections, Bihar election results, nitish kumar, nitish kumar campaign, grand alliance campaign, bihar news, India news Sanjay Yadav was in charge of coordinating with RJD allies (Express Photo by Prashant Ravi)

The strategist

Sanjay Yadav, 31, is a friend of Lalu Prasad’s younger son Tejashwi Prasad Yadav from his cricketing days. Originally from Mahendragarh in Haryana, Sanjay, who has an MBA and an MSc from Delhi, shifted base to Patna in 2012, and began working for the RJD.

This election, as the man with his ear to the ground, Sanjay was in charge of coordinating with the RJD’s alliance partners, getting feedback from the field, keeping a watch for rebels in each constituency and promptly reporting all of this to Lalu.

As the conduit between the RJD and JD(U), Sanjay had to exchange key information with Nitish Kumar’s publicity manager Prashant Kishor. He was also tasked with getting feedback from the media — print, electronic and social — and processing that information. Besides being expected to know about the strengths and weaknesses of RJD and JD(U) candidates, Sanjay had to be clued into what the opponents were up to in each Assembly segment.

“One such day, when I was going through the Internet, I came across Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on reservation. I nearly sprang from my chair when I read it. I took it to Laluji, who understood how important it was to react to that statement. We discussed it and decided that we need to be aggressive. Laluji came up with the one-liner ‘Agar maa ka dudh piya hai to reservation khatm kar ke dikhao (I dare you to do away with reservation…)’. We tweeted his reaction and it went viral. Within the next 24 hours, the entire election debate had shifted to reservation,” says Sanjay.

If Lalu is known for his off-the-cuff remarks, the RJD’s new team of political entrepreneurs led by Sanjay ensured that the chief didn’t stray too often. Barring his remarks on beef — “people eat beef when out of India” and “(there was) satan on my lips” — there have hardly been any offhand comments from the RJD chief.

Sanjay says that the RJD had to go in for an image makeover to be in step with alliance partner JD(U). “We had to change our image from that of a party of lathis (wooden stick) to one of laptops. The mere mention of jungle raj put our cadres on the defensive. We had to change that so we dug out the GDP and crime data from 1961 to show how Laluji had managed to keep trouble in check,” says Sanjay.

He recalls how they often impressed upon Lalu to give prompt rebuttals to attacks from the Opposition and, at times, also against his own leaders. RJD vice-president Raghuvansh Prasad Singh had created a stir by saying the party would welcome Asaduddin Owaisi into the Grand Alliance. So Lalu had to come out with a statement that there was “no scope for hardliners in the alliance”.

Sanjay, who was assisted by engineering graduate Abhinav Pankaj from Bhagalpur, says he also toured Bihar extensively to understand the “region-wise dynamics of state politics”. For example, his team studied the RJD’s disastrous showing in the 2010 Assembly elections and found that the party had lost 44 seats by less than 5,000 votes.

Backed by Tej and Tejashwi, who agreed on the need to reboot the party’s strategy, Sanjay helped create the RJD’s website. “Even before the 2014 elections, we had Laluji’s Twitter and Facebook account in place. We knew the power of social media and exploited it without going hammer and tongs about it,” says Sanjay.

Bihar, Bihar elections, Bihar election results, nitish kumar, nitish kumar campaign, grand alliance campaign, bihar news, India news Uday Shankar (left) and Rakesh Roy handled the party war-room (Express Photo by Prashant Ravi)

The war-room managers

“Lalu Prasad gave the poor social empowerment, Nitish Kumar gave them political empowerment. Now is the time for economic empowerment,” says Uday Shankar, 30, talking about what clicked for the Lalu-Nitish combination.

With a doctorate in psychology from Patna University, Uday was the man tasked with the campaigns of both Tej and Tejashwi. Though his primary task was to streamline Tej Pratap’s campaign, Uday went on to be a key organisation man for the party and even led the party’s election war-room.

Tej Pratap and Tejashwi converted their father’s famous cowshed at Danapur, on the outskirts of Patna, into their war room. The symbolism in that shift — part of their lathi-to-laptop transformation — wasn’t lost on anyone. Towards the end of the five-phase elections, the war room was moved to a two-storey building on the premises of 10, Circular Road.

It was Uday who came up with the winning idea of a toll-free helpline at the Danapur war-room. The helpline first started getting calls from Mahua’s voters, mostly feedback, complaints and suggestions, but was later later flooded with calls from all Assembly segments.

“It was a great experience talking directly to voters and getting their feedback on electoral issues, social arithmetic and on leaders needing to pay more attention to particular areas,” says Uday, who is assisted by Rakesh Roy, 27, a B.Tech graduate who runs an IT solution company in Patna.

“During the campaigning, we took every adverse comment in our stride and worked immediately to rectify (the issue). The best thing was that our team managed to connect with young voters,” says Uday.

Mahua, from where Tej Pratap contested, wasn’t an easy fight to begin with. “Remember, Ram Vilas Paswan got over 70,000 votes from Mahua segment just in the last Lok Sabha elections. It is down to 35,000 this election,” says Uday, adding that the party got even the OBC votes which would have otherwise gone to the BJP.

He says the team studied each booth in Mahua in detail, with a break-up of its social structure and the profiles and preferences of its voters. They also mapped areas, engaged with local leaders and took voters’ questions on social media. Uday and Rakesh also trained workers to interact with the media and told them to avoid aggression.

Uday, who was himself picked by Tejashwi through interactions on Facebook, says, “People we had been interviewing had either worked for BJP or for Kejriwal. When Rakesh said he had not worked for anyone, we promptly hired his team. They are the ones who have kept our war room buzzing by processing all our ideas.”

Bihar, Bihar elections, Bihar election results, nitish kumar, nitish kumar campaign, grand alliance campaign, bihar news, India news Upendra Yadav (left) and Deepak Kumar fielded close to 1,000 calls a day at Lalu, Rabri’s residence (Express Photo by Prashant Ravi)

The messengers

Lalu Prasad isn’t known to carry a cellphone. That makes Upendra Yadav and Deepak Kumar’s jobs doubly important. They man the two phones at Lalu’s office at 10, Circular Road, and say the phones haven’t stopped ringing the last three months. “We have been taking at least 1,000 calls a day,” says Upendra.

The 31-year-old is from Mirganj in Lalu’s hometown of Gopalganj and took up a job here three years ago. Deepak, 31, is from Gardanibagh in Patna and has been working in Lalu’s office for seven years.
While the two work as telephone operators at Lalu’s office, they do much more than merely attend calls, acting as the link between party workers and Lalu.

“At times, callers flaunt their proximity to our leader just to make sure they get an immediate response but by now, we know which call is important and which is not,” says Upendra, adding that they have a list of “important people” that they go by.

“During the election, the calls we got from candidates were mostly requests to schedule Laluji’s visit to their constituencies. We would then take extensive notes and show them to sahib from time to time,” says Deepak, adding that they have over the years put in place a system to maintain records of all calls.

The two were also entrusted with the task of coordinating with helicopter pilots about the campaign schedule of RJD leaders. “All the pilots were part of our WhatsApp groups and we would send them schedules and programmes from time to time,” says Upendra.

Deepak says election duty was stressful — they would reach office by 7 am and leave only at 1 am. “At times, the pressure would get to us and we would dial wrong numbers. But sahib always understood our plight and never pulled us up,” says Kumar, leaving the phone unattended to join Tej Pratap for the photo session.
For now, the phone calls can wait.

7, Circular Road

Bihar, Bihar elections, Bihar election results, nitish kumar, nitish kumar campaign, grand alliance campaign, bihar news, India news Prashant Kishor with Nitish Kumar. Kishor’s team of 60 — out of a total of 250 — operated out of a 1,000-sq-ft room at the CM’s residence (Express Photo by Prashant Ravi)

The planner

WHEN RJD chief Lalu Prasad is in the room, it is rare for cameras to be turned away from him. It happened, though, after the Bihar win when one man in white-kurta pyjama and dark-framed glasses dropped in for a visit. While the RJD chief couldn’t hide his amusement, even he wouldn’t have grudged sharing the spotlight with the other man of the moment: Prashant Kishor.

The 37-year-old ex-United Nations employee who entered the largely untested waters of election strategising in India four years ago is now credited with steering two polar opposites to victory. After the former Narendra Modi advisor was hired by Nitish Kumar, Kishor and Lalu had approached each other cagily. That day after the poll results, Kishor made sure to meet the RJD president and to let him do all the talking.

In a campaign as bitter, prolonged and fast-moving such as Bihar’s, this ability to innovate was one of Kishor’s strengths.

A team of 60 — out of a total of 250 — operated out of a 1,000-sq-ft room at the Chief Minister’s residence, 7, Circular Road, in Patna. Some of them, including Kishor, had been earlier part of the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) that worked on Modi’s Lok Sabha campaign. The new, expanded avatar is called the Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC).

Most of the members are professionals drawn from premier institutions such as IIMs, IITs, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and JNU. Of them, Paroma Bhatt, who earlier worked with the World Trade Center in Geneva, and Payal Kamath, a graduate from the London School of Economics, handled Nitish’s Twitter handle.
Another team collected booth-level data from each of the 243 Assembly segments for the party to identify problem areas and for any ready reference.

Rishi Singh, who had been one of the founding members of CAG, said their team dissected every important statement of Modi, for Nitish to rebut with data. So when Modi made a big show of his Rs 1.25 lakh crore package for Bihar, Nitish quickly pointed out that Rs 1.08 lakh crore of that was part of old schemes approved by the previous government at the Centre.

Kishor came up with slogans that helped dilute the punch of what had been one of Modi team’s strengths. “Phir ek baar, Nitish Kumar” was his slogan, as was the one with the slight innotation at the end making an instant local connect, “Bihar me bahaar ho, Nitishe Kumar ho”.

Interactions with common people helped coin other slogans. “Jhanse me na aayenge, Nitish ko jitayenge”, another hit slogan, came after some voters used the term “jhaanse (being tricked)” to explain why they voted for the BJP in the 2014 polls.

Kishor also helped smoothen the Mahagathbandhan campaign by looking after Lalu’s Assembly-wise schedule to avoid any overlap with JD(U) and Congress leaders.

If IPAC’s on-ground teams in districts gave feedback to their Patna war-room, the “outdoor team” gave the BJP close competition on its other strength, social media. WhatsApp waas used to reach voters through catchy slogans.
The ‘Har ghar dastak’ programme that Nitish started from Patna, knocking on doors of voters, was carried on by bicycle campaigners.

“The whole idea was not just to out-think the NDA but to set a benchmark for ourselves using the Internet, social media,” says a source at Nitish’s residence.

When the initial trends on voting day showed the BJP ahead, one of the persons at the receiving end of Lalu’s outburst, sources said, was Kishor. The RJD chief later joked that he had been sitting on a “jinxed” chair, and that everytime he had occupied it on a counting day, the results had been unfavourable. However, that moment of anger directed at Kishor was as good an admission as any on how important the poll strategist’s role was in this election.

To manage two elections, of two rivals and win both — it rarely gets better than that. Or does it? Sources say Kishor has already got an invitation from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for the state’s 2016 Assembly elections. After the Bihar results, his ports of call in Delhi included both Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and ex-BJP stalwart and bitter Modi critic Arun Shourie.

Bihar, Bihar elections, Bihar election results, nitish kumar, nitish kumar campaign, grand alliance campaign, bihar news, India news ‘Team JD(U)’ — (from left) Mrityunjay Kumar Singh, Anil Hegde, Ravindra Kumar and Ravinesh Kumar — outside the JD(U) office (Express Photo by Prashant Ravi)

The conduits

When he was looking for a residence after making Jitan Ram Manjhi the chief minister in May 2014, Nitish didn’t have to search far. He moved into the house of Sanjay Kumar Singh, popularly known as “Gandhiji” because of his old Congress links and his quiet demeanour.

The grandson of famous Kurmi leader Dev Sharan Singh, one of Bihar’s most prominent OBC leaders, Singh has been close to Nitish for 26 years, and, in this election, was the bridge between the CM and middle-rung JD(U) leaders, candidates and workers. His work included finalising public meetings and tracking the movement of all top leaders.

The fact that the 55-year-old keeps a low profile and holds no party position perhaps helps.

Singh was assisted by Navin Kumar Arya, the JD(U) headquarters in-charge; Chandan Kumar Singh, its state general secretary and state advisory committee member; Anil Kumar, state president, Seva Dal (a JD-U wing on the line of the Congress’s); and Jitendra Yadav, who heads the JD(U) communication wing.

Sitting underneath slogans of “phir ek baar, Nitish Kumar” at the JD(U) office, Singh says phones were a crucial element of their work. “Our job was to call about one lakh booth-level workers to get micro-level feedback. We would instantly know the strategy of our opponent in a particular area and come up with a counter-strategy.”

They were particularly careful to make sure that no caste group felt ignored — “ki kahin koi samaj chhoot to nahin raha hai”.

Smiling, Singh adds, “While there has been a lot of talk about this election being one of backwards versus forwards, we concentrated as much on upper castes.”

Arya, whose job was to process information for the CM, says every input from the field was taken into account and passed on to Nitish and other key leaders.

Chandan Singh, a Masters in Social Work, says they decided the programmes of top party leaders such as Sharad Yadav, Ali Anwar and Bashistha Narayan Singh, as per the social profile of a constituency.

Anil Kumar, who has been working with the JD(U) for 10 years, says focus was also on quickly reacting to any change in public mood. “For example, we learnt that the EBC Tanti community was not being properly targeted by the party. We promptly addressed this,” says Singh.

Eventually, their strength lay in their spread. “We have a database of one lakh local leaders and workers,” Singh says.

Bihar, Bihar elections, Bihar election results, nitish kumar, nitish kumar campaign, grand alliance campaign, bihar news, India news Sanjay Kumar Singh (centre) was the bridge between the CM and middle-rung JD(U) leaders, candidates and workers. His work included finalising meetings and tracking the movement of all leaders (Express Photo by Prashant Ravi)

The coordinators

This group of four would rather be called ‘Team JD(U)’, and they ensured that the fight to the finish left no loose ends.

Remember how BJP posters of “PM Modi with Amit Shah” had to be removed from the Patna airport midway through the election, as a government space can’t be used for campaigning? The man who took up the matter with the Election Commission was the JD(U)’s little-known Bihar vice-president and a man from Udupi, Karnataka, Anil Hegde.

The 55-year-old is still not very comfortable with Hindi, but that hasn’t hampered him in Bihar, where the erstwhile Janata Dal leader has been working since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

“My job was to watch for any violation of the model code of conduct by NDA leaders. We would go through statements of all top leaders and bring them to the EC’s notice. Controversial Pakistan remarks and cow ads in newspapers were picked up fast,” says Hegde.

Mrityunjay Kumar Singh, Ravinesh Kumar, and Ravindra Kumar, make up the rest of this team.

Ravinesh alias Bablu, a Masters in History from Patna University, has been associated with Nitish since the Kurmi Chetna rally of 1994. “My prime job was to take permission for helicopter landings and public meetings for the CM and other top leaders. I created two WhatsApp groups to coordinate with party leaders and pilots,” says Ravinesh. One of the requisites of the job was being in party office by 8.30 am, as most helicopters flights were scheduled for take-off at 9.30 am.

Ravindra Kumar, who is from Nitish’s home town of Bakhtiyarpur, would keep party candidates in the loop on the CM’s programme.

Mrityunjay Kumar Singh, who crossed over from the BJP to the JD(U) after the NDA split, says his job was to coordinate with top leaders. Mrityunjay, who comes from the ABVP, calls himself a committed JD(U) worker now.

As they pose for a photograph outside the JD(U) office, a larger-than-life Nitish stares down at them. A week after the results, the talk has moved on — to Nitish being the man to watch out for in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.