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Prashant Kishor: ‘In the next 20-30 years, Indian politics will revolve around the BJP — you are with it or opposed to it’

At the latest edition of Express eAdda, election strategist-turned-politician Prashant Kishor spoke on why the BJP will remain a formidable electoral force in the coming decades, how the Congress needs to learn to be in Opposition and on taking the political plunge from Bihar.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: May 28, 2022 1:06:50 pm
Prashant Kishor in conversation with Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express, and Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor, The Indian Express, at the Express eAdda. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha)

At the latest edition of Express eAdda, election strategist-turned-politician Prashant Kishor spoke on why the BJP will remain a formidable electoral force in the coming decades, how the Congress needs to learn to be in Opposition and on taking the political plunge from Bihar.

On stringing together an Opposition

A lot of people put this on me that I’m out there to stitch a coalition or bring together people who can possibly challenge the existing political setup. But in my own head, I’m not driven by this idea of ‘defeating someone or containing someone’. I do what I think seems right to me at that point in time.

I think like any other person, I would like to be successful. And success, the way I define it in my head, is your ability to influence people’s lives. The more successful you are, the more is your ability to influence that many lives. It’s very easy to say that I’m here to change mankind. I mean no disrespect but in a beauty contest, when people ask why are you contesting, many contestants say some lofty things. Ultimately, they want to find a place in modelling or in Bollywood. I don’t want to fall into that category. Success varies from person to person.

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On whether the BJP will come down on its own

Actually not. Because all those who think that what goes up will come down, it may be true to say so in the medium to long run. There are two parts to it. The BJP as a formidable electoral party is going to stay in India for many decades to come. Once you secure more than 30 per cent of votes at the India level, nobody can wish you away. It’s not something which will come down on its own. That said, it doesn’t mean that they will continue to win every election. What it means is that for the first 40-50 years, the politics in India was around the Congress — either you were with Congress or opposed to it. In the next 20-30 years, I see Indian politics will revolve around the BJP — you are with the BJP, or you are opposed to it. Those who think that they will come down on their own, it’s probably not the right assessment.

That doesn’t mean that it cannot happen five years later or two years later. But it is quite possible that it might take 20-30 years as well. This desperation that just because there is a BJP, there has to be an Opposition and, hence, some Opposition will emerge, is wishful thinking. With the right approach, it could, maybe, emerge in two years. But if you do not do the right things, you might have a situation where a political outfit or a formation with a pan-India influence and electoral reach may or may not be there for many years to come.

On what caused the decline of the Congress

Congress in the present form, which is the Indira Congress, came out after 1967. They have been in a decline as a political outfit since 1985. The last time they won India was in 1984. A lot of people do not pay attention to this, that since 1984, the Congress has not won India on its own. In the interim, they have ruled the country for about 15 years. Once, as a minority government, when Narasimha Rao was the prime minister, and twice as a coalition government. All of us accept that in 1989, the Congress lost the election. But Congress as a party won 198 MPs, if I recall correctly. In 2004, we think the Congress won and UPA-I was formed. But Congress is a party of 145 MPs. As a political party, the Congress’ decline literally started from 1984-85 onwards.

No party gets more than 40 per cent votes at the India level. That tells you that even on your good day, when you won India, there were more people opposed to you than those who were convinced by you. That’s why, in India, you must not ever underestimate the Opposition. However, having an Opposition doesn’t necessarily mean that the Opposition parties are strong, and they are able to translate that voice of dissent or opposition into electoral gain or success.

The Congress, which is the principal Opposition party in this country, has been the ruling party for decades. Somehow they need to learn how to be in Opposition, and how to behave like an Opposition party. When the Congress goes on the street today, and they do something, they don’t get similar media attention or traction (like they would, when they were in the government). Their natural reaction or response is, how do we do anything because the media doesn’t cover us, they completely blank us out. This shows the mindset, the DNA of a ruling party, which is yet to come to terms with being an Opposition party. That’s the fundamental problem I see in the thought process of the way the Congress responds to this situation. And this leads to a type of thinking that we have ruled the country for very long, and we know sooner or later people will get angry. And when they get angry or upset, if we are there, they will vote for us.

Prashant Kishor was in conversation with Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express, and Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor, The Indian Express. (Photo: Abhinav Saha)

On the importance of the face vs the narrative

A message that is part of the narrative, when delivered through a credible messenger, makes sense. These are what I call ‘the four Ms’ to win elections. You need the right message to be delivered by a face or a messenger or a leader, who is trusted. And then you need the machinery, the party to convert that kind of support into vote. What you call ‘Coffee with Captain’ or hologram are the mechanics of the campaign. That’s the way to reach out. That’s the way to take the leader to the masses in a much more interesting and engaging manner. But if you don’t have three out of the four Ms right, you’re less likely to win.

If you put too many faces (on the poster), if you put too many messages, it just gets cluttered. It’s just an idea to clear the clutter. You’re probably giving me too much credit for this. It’s a simple thing of having your poster less cluttered, with the one message which you want to deliver, one face, who you want people to trust, and one symbol, which they have to go and press the button on.

It’s basic common sense. I will show you some posters which I have with me from the 1960s when the Congress used to have their campaign. Just one symbol, one face of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and ‘Vote for Congress’. That’s it. This is not an invention of Prashant Kishor.

On becoming a politician

You call me a political activist. I have ceased to be what I was when I announced last May — after Bengal and Tamil Nadu assembly elections — that I would not do this work any longer in the form and manner in which I used to do.

I’m going to Bihar as I have announced, to go consult, meet people and see what could be done to change the situation in Bihar. In the first 15 years of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s government, one can say that something has been done on the samajik nyaya (social justice) front. Even he or his supporters will claim that they might have not progressed economically but they did give a voice to the oppressed.

Nitish Kumar will say that we brought economic development, made roads, and got electricity. The fact of the matter is, while their claims are true to some extent, after these 30 years, Bihar is one of the poorest and most backward states. Bihar ranks low in all the developmental parameters.

Yes, I agree with what Yadav and Kumar have done. But in the next 10-15 years, if Bihar wants to rank among the developed states, it has to take a different path — what I call as ‘nayi soch aur naya prayas’.

The new thought or new effort cannot be of Prashant Kishor, of just one individual. So my role is to go there and meet people because I believe there are enough people in Bihar who understand the state. They know what could be done to solve some of the complex issues. And above all, they have the intent to do something to change the present situation.

My job is to go meet them, impress upon them, plead with them to come together, to commit to this. If all of them come together and they decide to form a political party, so be it. But that political party would not be the political party of Prashant Kishor. It will be the political party of all those who would agree to be the co-founders. Me included.

I’m the catalyst who is trying to bring together all those who think this is doable and should be done. I don’t know whether I will be the leader or somebody else will be the leader; let the process unfold. My hope and belief are that I would be democratic and transparent enough in the process of formation of this party, proving many of the critics wrong, that this is doable, and we will be able to do it the way it should be done in a democratic way.

Some 18,000 people from different fields — teachers, former bureaucrats, doctors, farmers and social workers — have expressed interest or we would have reached out to them, asking if they want to join such a mission. Now, the challenge for me or the task for me is, in the next few months, to go meet them individually or in groups and see how many of them are willing to become part of this as co-founders. I cannot give you the number of how many people will come together unless I undertake this exercise. You won’t see me alone.

Meenakshi Gopinath
Chairperson, centre for policy research

Are you now moving away from an election-centric philosophy to something that is about politics as the art of the possible? How will you prepare to transmit your vision to the people?

What I was doing till now was more as a professional. It was a task I had to complete within a defined timeframe. When I was working with somebody, it did not mean that I was completely aligned to their thought process, ideology and what they promised to do. It was a defined task in a defined timeframe and I was doing the job. What I am trying to do now is probably what I will do for the rest of my life, which is why I took one year to think what to do, and how. I went out in public, spent time with people, tried to understand the problems they are facing and get their feedback about me. It was a longer affair than it used to be with a party or a leader.

Raj Nair
Chairman, Avalon consulting

I really liked the lucid 4M formula that you talked about. The BJP seems to have got all the four Ms right. The Opposition has not been able to get more than two right. Is it because the Opposition lacks the fifth M, which is the money or resources required to fight these elections? If so, when you are going to get into politics, will you be able to manage the M the way you explained to all of us?

The role of money in politics is important but is overhyped sometimes. My own feeling and assessment is if you have popular support of the people, society finds ways to support you on the money front. BJP has got most money today, and that’s not why they are winning, it’s the other way round — because they are winning or likely to win, that’s why they get more money. If you have the four Ms right, invariably you will find people who would support you with money.

Ayaz Memon
Senior journalist

Do you also map what is happening in the environment in Asia — for instance, in Pakistan or in Sri Lanka — and whether it has any impacton the politics that will be played out in India during the 2024 elections?

Not really, what happens in the neighbourhood would probably seep into the discussions in the living rooms, as part of chatter, but I don’t see these events having any meaningful impact on elections in India, at the state or the federal level.

Jagdish walawalkar
CMD, IDEAL Education

When a political party gives you an assignment, do they specify the expected outcome? Has any party retained you for a second time?

If there is alignment and agreement on both sides, you decide to work together and do everything required for that party or leader to be on the winning side. The election cycle is five years, so you have to wait to see if people repeat us or not. In 2015, we worked with Nitish Kumar. He is no longer in that formation, he is now with BJP, so the question of repeating doesn’t arise. I-PAC is doing the work where they have worked earlier, be it West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu. If that amounts to repeat, they are being repeated.

Uday Bhende
MD, Kirloskar Solar technologies

Where do you see the current political scenario going?

The present situation continues as it is, with BJP as one of the predominant political forces, while the Opposition will probably continue to evolve. Maybe they will get their act right in a couple of years or longer.

QUICK QUESTIONS

* AAP or Flipkart, India’s most successful startup?
Flipkart.

* AAP or Congress, the bigger threat to the BJP?
Anyday, the Congress.

* BJP’s biggest asset today?
Organisation.

* And their biggest weakness?
Too much dependence on Narendra Modi.

* Politics or policy, what does Prashant Kishor like more?
Policy. Politics is the means to that.

* The Congress’ biggest strength?
Their legacy.

* Their biggest weakness?
Their inertia.

* Welfarism or identity, which is the stronger election weapon?
Welfarism.

* In 2024, which party is better-suited to lead India?
Let the people decide.

* One political strategist, alive or dead, anywhere in the world, who you were inspired by?
I don’t know about any of them. I haven’t read or heard about this whole idea of a political strategist. In India, we didn’t have anyone. Even outside of India, I don’t know of any one.

* One politician in India, alive or dead, you admire most?
Mahatma Gandhi.

* And alive?
LK Advani.

* Why?
Because he probably created this party that has become a pan-India party, which we see in the BJP.

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