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The un-politics of Prashant Kishor

Modi to Mamata, Nitish to Kejriwal, Jagan to Amarinder — the political consultant who travels light is out of the shadows, seeking the limelight in Bihar. If it is not ideology, what drives the 43-year-old Prashant Kishor?

“As a leader, I wanted Nitish Kumar to choose between Gandhi and Godse,” Prashant Kishor said. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

On February 18, minutes before the cameras rolled, Prashant Kishor sat intently, prepared to spell out his action plan for a “new Bihar”. In the backdrop was an image of Mahatma Gandhi and a quote: “The best politics is right action”. The reason for this emphasis on the Mahatma emerged barely three minutes into the press conference. “As a leader, I wanted Nitish Kumar to choose between Gandhi and Godse,” Kishor said, talking about his “ideological rift” with the Bihar Chief Minister and the JD(U), the first party he formally joined, in September 2018, and of which he was vice-president until his expulsion for “indiscipline” in January this year.

In India’s fragmented political landscape, the last person one would expect to pick a side is perhaps Kishor, the brain behind ‘Brand Modi’ to ‘Beta Kejriwal’, ‘Didi ke Bolo’ for Mamata Banerjee to ‘Halqe vich Captain’ for Amarinder Singh, ‘Jaganna’s Navratnalu’ for Jagan Mohan Reddy to ‘Phir Se, Nitishe’ for Nitish — a spectrum of ideas so wide, a set of personalities and principles so disparate that it’s hard to brand the man and his politics.

Prashant Kishor with Arvind Kejriwal after the latter’s victory in the Assembly elections.

It was as a 33-year-old, fresh from a stint as a public health professional attached with the United Nations in the north-central African country of Chad, that Kishor joined Team Narendra Modi. Kishor, who grew up in small towns in Bihar and UP, has in the past said that it was a paper he authored while in the UN — on some of India’s high-growth-rate states having high levels of malnutrition, with Gujarat faring the worst — that caught the eye of the then Gujarat CM. This led to Kishor, or “PK” as his aides call him, being offered a position in Modi’s team in 2011, with a year to go for the state elections.

In 2012, an English daily in Ahmedabad carried a story on Kishor “without any picture, as no one had one, so low key was his presence”, said a source close to him.

Read | Prashant Kishor meets Kushwaha, Manjhi, Bihar Congress chief

While Kishor’s visibility went up after Modi’s rise, his separation from the BJP after the 2014 win and his joining hands with Nitish the following year brought him and his political consultancy firm, I-PAC or Indian Political Action Committee, into full public glare for the first time. “He is a big believer in lateral entry into governance. And that is something he proposed to Modi as well. Kishor wanted a team of professionals led by him and his team to work with the PMO. Modi was initially receptive, but that plan did not materialise,” said an I-PAC insider on the various theories around his separation from team Modi.

In the 2015 elections, which the JD(U) fought in a Mahagathbandhan with the RJD and Congress, Kishor handled the JD(U) campaign. His imprint was seen in how the alliance came out as a cohesive force. His supporters point to how he even won over Lalu’s trust as proof of his ability to negotiate the personal egos of leaders.

JD(U) Vice-President Prashant Kishor with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. (Express file photo)

“One evening, I went to meet Lalu and he introduced me to Kishor, praising him profusely,” recalled a senior RJD leader.

The Mahagathbandhan’s win in the 2015 elections burnished Kishor’s reputation as a doer, one that got amplified with successes in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi. His I-PAC also works with the Trinamool Congress in Bengal and DMK in Tamil Nadu.

“Once I-PAC is on board, there are no no-go zones. And it is fascinating how powerful leaders like Mamata or Kejriwal are willingly making way for external interventions to that extent. I-PAC not only uses a party’s volunteers for campaigning, it uses supporters, who are not known to campaign, as force multipliers,” an I-PAC executive said.

An I-PAC associate who worked with Kishor in Gujarat said his enthusiasm for every election is the same. “It doesn’t matter whether he subscribes to the party’s ideology or not. He believes in leadership — he feels the country needs charismatic leaders. He gets agitated when he doesn’t see the leader following a plan. For instance, he almost gave up on the Congress during the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections because the effort was way too one-sided… The failure of the Congress in accepting Kishor’s 14-point formula, which included projecting Priyanka Gandhi’s face, prevented us from making even a decent shot.”

Also read | Inside track: Prashant Kishor thinks big

However, Kishor’s seemingly effortless transition from one political camp to another has also earned him critics. Leaders of multiple parties talk of Kishor’s “take it or leave it” style of functioning. He is also known to maintain tight control over information and access, a tactic, several say, that’s intended to amplify his importance. So if he operated from Ahmedabad during Modi’s 2014 election campaign, he worked from Nitish’s 1, Aney Marg, residence for the 2015 Bihar elections.

He has also progressively become less self-effacing about success. While it took some time for Kishor to emerge out of Modi’s shadows, in 2015, he got himself photographed with Nitish as the trends began consolidating in the JD(U)’s favour. In Delhi, his picture with Kejriwal made it to social media even as Deputy CM Manish Sisodia was struggling.

A senior BJP leader in Gujarat calls Kishor “extremely opportunistic and ambitious”. “When he was introduced Narendrabhai by a real estate tycoon from Mumbai in 2011, he was not covert about his ambition to be an integral part of politics. Over the years, he has gone to everyone as a consultant and now runs a company doing that… For him it is not about ideology but opportunity. Parties know that and only trust his grey matter, which is definitely worth the cost,” he said.

Other professionals in the policy and governance sphere also find PK’s style of functioning problematic. The co-lead of a policy forum working closely with CM Hemant Soren in Jharkhand said, “Shaping the political economy of a state should not just stop at elections. It should also be about shaping policy and governance initiatives. That’s what we are trying to do in Jharkhand.”

Countered a PK confidant, “People are quick to point out that he has no moral high-ground to differentiate between Gandhi and Godse, having helped an RSS pracharak become the country’s PM. But it is equally true that PK has defeated the BJP or NDA in more direct battles than any other leader today.”

About the charge that PK just latches on to winning sides, the aide added, “People should ask Kejriwal or Jagan or Nitish or Amarinder to say they would have won anyway. Also, if arithmetic is everything in Hindi heartland, what explains the fate of the mahagathbandhan in UP (the BSP-SP were trounced by the BJP)?” He says that the changing reality of politics and nature of campaigning makes the role of a US-style PAC like I-PAC essential.

Reached for his comments, the 43-year-old chose to address only the perception of him being overly ambitious. Asked if he wants to be successful, Kishor, who lives with his wife and son in Delhi, said, “Yes, like any other individual. Success for me is the ability to influence the lives of people. Success to me is not any post or resources.”

Prashant Kishor made it clear last week that he was open to all options in achieving his “objective of ensuring Bihar breaks into the league of India’s top 10 states in 10 years”

Sources close to Kishor insist that nothing drives him more than the “belief” that he is effectively controlling policy-making — be it through Kejriwal’s 10 guarantees, Nitish ke 7 nishchay, Captain de 9 nukte or Jagan’s navaratnalu. “Once a leader makes those promises, as suggested by Kishor, his or her entire tenure hinges around them in a way,” said a source.

But it is not just PK the individual who is hard to decipher. The organisational structure of I-PAC, registered as a company in April 2015, has no mention of Kishor. Its day-to-day affairs are run by an executive council and team of leaders, including its co-founders Rishi Raj Singh, Pratik Jain and Vinesh Kumar Chandel. In May 2016, I-PAC was served notices by the Income Tax Department. The last AGM of I-PAC was held in September 2019.

Read | From ‘achhe beete paanch saal’ to black and yellow colours, how I-PAC left its imprint

“I-PAC works on a zero equity model. It takes money from parties as reimbursements, which helps it cover the cost of campaigns and to sustain itself. The organisation employs over 2,500 people,” an insider said.

Cut to Bihar, which goes to polls in another nine months. Kishor made it clear last week that he was open to all options in achieving his “objective of ensuring Bihar breaks into the league of India’s top 10 states in 10 years”.

At one point, during his Patna press conference, Kishor declared, “Chunav ladna, ladana, jeetna, ye kaam toh main roz karta hoon (Fighting elections, winning, helping others win, I do this every day). But today I am not here for that… I want youngsters to live that dream of a new political leadership.”

To The Sunday Express on his Bihar plan, PK said, “To my mind, the game is wide open.”

(with ENS inputs)

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