Poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who sets off from West Champaran Sunday for a yatra lasting one-and-a-half years, speaks to The Indian Express about his Jan Suraaj campaign, his political party that is in the works, the support he is getting, Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra, and why the Congress presidential poll could not have had “worse timing”.
Now that you have already travelled across 25 of Bihar’s 38 districts before your scheduled padayatra, what are your takeaways and plans?
There is a vast majority of people who are showing a huge fatigue factor with the present regime. Whether they are JD(U) or RJD supporters, or others, they want something new. For the first time, I have been seeing people use terms or words they did not use for Nitish Kumar till 2014-’15, till the time I worked for him. No one used abusive words for Nitish till 2015. But people are using abusive words for him now … When I used to move around a lot for him before the 2015 polls, he used to say that the worst that could happen is that he might lose. He would say, ‘Hamne ijjat kamai hai, log mujhe gaali nahi denge (I have earned respect, people will not abuse me)’. I think that phase is over for Nitish Kumar. People will say Lalu and Nitish are the same. There is corruption, lethargy and inefficiency in the lower bureaucracy. There is no fear of government among such functionaries.
What are people saying about the liquor law Nitish Kumar often talks of?
The failure of the liquor law is a huge factor. People say, ‘Sab kuchh barbaad ho gaya (everything is destroyed)’. They explain how the liquor mafia rules the roost and some policemen also extort money in the name of implementation or non-implementation of the liquor law. There has been criminalisation of the youth (because of an illegal liquor trade). As for women, what I could sense after talking to a few lower court lawyers is that women are the worst sufferers, with their husbands, sons and brothers being sent to jail for drinking. The liquor law has badly affected law and order, with most of the police force being engaged in the implementation of the law or hiding facts from the government. I got such feedback after talking to some IPS officers … when I met Kisan Chachi (social activist Rajkumari Devi in Muzaffarpur), a mukhiya told me how the local police often get womenfolk from Mushahari to wash utensils at police stations. These women’s husbands often get arrested after drinking.
How have you selected your padayatra route? Have you also kept the social combination in mind?
A padayatra of this magnitude has not been attempted in Bihar in the last 75 years. It will be a 3,500-km total on-foot yatra. No vehicle will be used, nor will I go back to Delhi or Patna and resume. I will stop at villages where I reach in the evening. I have avoided national highways. I will visit all blocks and all towns and most of the panchayats. My idea is to visit a maximum number of villages and identify people who should be encouraged to join politics. Just take the example of West Champaran from where I will start my padayatra, I will be moving around in this district for 35 days. That’s why I have kept one-and-a-half years to complete the padayatra. As for the social combination, it is true that caste is a reality in Bihar, but people do not see me as a caste leader. I have a different USP. They expect me to bring change. There is also a section of people who think that I can bring about change. There is also a set of people who think if I help them, they can win local-level elections.
Who are the ones coming along with you? Social activists, RTI activists, politicians falling by the wayside?
All sorts of people mentioned above. Besides an interest among the youth, what surprised me the most is senior citizens’ deep interest in my programmes. Just the other day, I met an 88-year-old Gandhian from Muzaffarpur who wants to join my yatra. During a recent meeting in Madhubani, 22 of 25 people who met me were 70-plus. These are the people who have lived their life but still believe things can still change. Shaayad kuchh ho jaaye (hope for something good to happen). I was telling my wife that I met hugely talented and well-read people in villages.
Another padayatra, the Bharat Jodo Yatra by Rahul Gandhi, is on. What is your take on it?
The route of this yatra is beyond my understanding. Ideologically or politically, Kerala or Telangana cannot be the nerve centre of this yatra, especially when the Gujarat Assembly elections are round the corner. Though I am no one to suggest, the yatra should have started from Gujarat for obvious political reasons. The Congress should have started the battle from the place that matters the most. From Gujarat, Rahul Gandhi could have gone to Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, and Telangana. Some people argue that their yatra is for a larger cause, not the Gujarat polls. Then, UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, or Madhya Pradesh could have the ideal place to start it. The Congress should have focussed on states where a maximum of 300 BJP Lok Sabha seats came from.
How do you see the Congress’s presidential election? Do you see the party looking beyond the Gandhi family?
The timing of the Congress presidential poll could not have been worse, even if it is about the party looking beyond the Gandhi family. It is rattling the ship before it enters troubled waters. It is like changing the captain when there is an announcement of a storm. It is tough to expect the incoming person (president) to overhaul the system in one-and-a-half years before the next Lok Sabha polls. It could have made sense had it happened soon after the 2019 LS polls … As for Congress moving beyond dynasty, it will come out of the Gandhi family sooner or later. I do not know if it is desired.
Do you see Bihar politics becoming bipolar, with Nitish Kumar perhaps playing his last innings as CM? What has changed since Nitish joined the Grand Alliance?
I have no idea about it getting bipolar. What happens to the JD(U) post-Nitish is also up to its leaders to figure out. I am also not sure if the JD(U) will merge with the RJD … Nothing has changed with Nitish joining the Grand Alliance except the change in the number plates of some ministers. There is the same old culture in governance and bureaucracy. Work ethics and government mechanism are the same.
And what about Nitish Kumar’s prime ministerial ambitions and efforts for Opposition unity?
Having cups of coffee with some leaders and going for photo-ops is not the right approach to building a formidable Opposition. There has to be a clear message and narrative. Vast machinery is needed to run an effective campaign to build momentum that can defeat the BJP.
What is your biggest criticism of the Nitish government?
Investment in health and education is a must. My biggest criticism of Nitish Kumar is that despite being an educated person the education system has totally collapsed under his rule. We used to have basic schools, which have collapsed now. There used to be at least two to three government schools in each district where seats were fought for. But we do not have it. Maybe, Simultala school of Jamui in the entire state. The failure of the education system will affect two to three generations whereas broken roads can be repaired. For Nitish Kumar, education meant only constructing one or two-room pink buildings, never-ending agitation by teachers, distribution of school uniforms and bicycles, and a third-rate midday meal scheme. Tell me, where is learning? When I was part of the JD(U), I suggested one good school be built in every block. His response was that the idea was shot down by the UPA government in name of ensuring equality in education. But my counter suggestion was that the state government should still fund such schools. Somehow, Nitish Kumar has stopped listening. Nobody dared speak in front of him. During his evening meetings, hardly anyone would dare suggest anything. They would only listen to Nitish Kumar and speak five-six words in a three-hour sitting.
What is the alternative model you are offering to the people of Bihar?
Any alternative model has to give top priority to health and education. And unless the right people come to politics, some tinkering here and there will not help. Right-thinking people have to come together, they do not have to be afraid of anything and must not worry about where the money will come from (to help them contest elections).
But where will the money come from?
In the next couple of months, one will see the biggest crowdsourcing in Bihar. The biggest operators of crowd-funding will come to the state.
When will you announce your party and will you lead it?
We will announce the party soon after the padayatra. I have already announced that I will not lead it. I will neither be elected nor selected. But it will have a leader who will be selected from among its workers … Though it could be outrageous to draw an analogy of my venture with Mahatma Gandhi’s association with the Congress, he was the Congress president for just a year, what I want to suggest is that examples exist in our political history itself.
How do you describe Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, Chirag Paswan, and Kanhaiya Kumar, the three young leaders from Bihar?
Tejashwi is the son of Lalu Prasad, Chirag is a friend, and I have not heard or seen much of Kanhaiya Kumar in Bihar.
What is your political ideology — Left, Right, or Centre?
Left, Right, and Centre are from western democracies. That way, I am Centre-Left. I am a great believer in a welfare state that has to be maintained and respected. People cannot be left to market forces. Wealth creation and its creators have to be respected. One cannot distribute poverty. In the Hindi heartland, in the name of socialism, poverty was distributed and re-distributed. Look at the south Indian states. They also believe in social justice but they focussed on education, educating girls, and decentralisation of power. Take the example of Lalu Prasad, who distributed and redistributed poverty. He killed Panchayati Raj institutions … I am a great votary of Panchayati Raj institutions and believe that one-third of development funds should be routed through them.
What else do you have in mind for good governance?
I am in favour of the lateral entry of talented people in government to work as multipliers. Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Jehangir Bhabha, and APJ Abdul Kalam in space and missile science, Verghese Kurien in White Revolution, MS Swaminathan in Green Revolution, Sam Patroda in telecommunications, and Nandan Nilekani in Aadhar were game-changers. All of them are examples of lateral entry into government. Imagine, we have a pool of thousands of such people who can make lateral entries to work as multipliers.
In recent times, only Arvind Kejriwal’s political venture has succeeded. Do you also have some populist initiatives in mind such as Kejriwal’s free electricity and water schemes?
I am not at all inspired by Arvind Kejriwal. If inspiration has to come from anywhere, it is from the Congress of pre-Independence days, in terms of selection of leadership, organisational stricture or having social and moral standards. I do not think that Kejriwal has succeeded because of what one calls populist measures. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had done so in 2017 but it did not succeed. It succeeded this time because the Congress has set its house on fire. The AAP has gone with the same model for Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat but the results may be different. While it can be the main Opposition in Gujarat, it may not do well in Himachal Pradesh. Freebies do not work. One has to be credible. I am taking a long route. After all, who takes two years to start a party?