Back With Bang? Crafted by Prashant Kishor, How a Single Strategy Helped Mamata Regain Ground in Bengal

News18.com

Kolkata: It was weeks after the general elections, but Mamata Banerjee was not happy. The May 23 results of the parliamentary polls had proved the Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief's worst fears true: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made massive gains in West Bengal, winning 18 of the state's 42 Lok Sabha seats, up from just two in 2014. After that, her party lost seven municipalities to the BJP, as a majority of them switched over to the saffron outfit.

While the TMC was on the back foot, Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister, had secretly picked political strategist Prashant Kishor on June 6 to get the party on track, especially in the backwoods.

After 54 days of Kishor's appointment, the outreach programme Didi Ke Bolo (Tell Didi) was launched on July 29, and in a span of nearly 180 days the TMC has not only managed to recapture all the seven municipalities which went to the BJP (due to a switchover) but also win the confidence of strong ground level leaders to rejoin the TMC. Banerjee is popularly known as Didi, or elder sister, in Bengal.

Kishor has been credited with orchestrating several electoral wins while working with the BJP, Congress and YSR Congress Party in particular. His first major campaign was in 2011 when he secured the victory of Narendra Modi in Gujarat for a third term as chief minister. The 42-year-old trained in public health and worked with the United Nations for several years before entering the Indian political scene.

He came under the spotlight when he helped Modi and the BJP win the 2014 general elections with innovative canvassing techniques: the chai pe charcha (talks over tea) campaign, 3D rallies, conclaves and social media programmes. Since then, Kishor has aided in electing to power JD(U)'s Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Congress's Amarinder Singh in Punjab and the YSRCP's YS Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. His association with the Congress for the 2017 assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, however, ended in a humiliating defeat for the party.

Following Kishor's coming on board with the TMC, the big setback for the BJP has been losing the Kanchrapara and Halisahar municipalities in the North 24 Parganas district in Bengal, which is known as a stronghold of party leader Mukul Roy — a turncoat from the Trinamool.

Observers say the BJP’s indiscriminate poaching had also backfired as most of the TMC leaders returned to their parent party. While BJP representatives alleged that they were threatened for “ghar wapsi” (coming back home), TMC leaders claimed that they were told fairy tales by the saffron party, which were not true.

As per the TMC’s internal assessment, more than 2,000 strong leaders – who actually have the capability to turn the tables – have come back to the Trinamool in the last six months. Most of them are booth leaders, having a great connect at the grassroots level.

Presently, the party is slowly regaining lost ground in most districts of North Bengal and in Jangalmahal, and TMC leaders feel the November 25 bypolls will be the first litmus test for Prashant Kishor to prove where he stands in understanding Bengal’s politics.

“Certainly recapturing seven municipalities from the BJP will be a major boost for him but the real challenge will be the bypolls on three seats. His true test will be Kharagpur Sadar and Kaliagunj, strongholds of the BJP and Congress. Kishor is working more on Kharagpur Sadar because this is the seat which, if TMC wins, will be a major setback for BJP state president Dilip Ghosh,” said a Trinamool leader in Kharagpur who wished not to be named.

The bye-elections are for the Kaliaganj assembly seat in North Dinajpur, Kharagpur Sadar in West Midnapore, and Karimpur in Nadia district.

The Kaliaganj seat fell vacant following the death of Congress MLA Pramatha Nath Ray on May 31, while the Kharagpur Sadar and Karimpur seats became available after BJP MLA Dilip Ghosh and TMC MLA Mahua Moitra won the parliamentary polls.

Not only the BJP, Kishor is facing another challenge from the beleaguered Congress and Left Front that have decided to go for a “seat adjustment” in the bypolls.

On November 7, Mamata Banerjee personally assessed the impact of Prashant Kishor’s ‘Didi Ke Bolo’ campaign in Bengal. The review meeting was held at Trinamool Bhawan in North Panchanna Gram where all the party leaders including MLAs, MPs and district presidents were asked to be present. The campaign provides a platform to the people to directly lodge complaints with the chief minister. Anyone can reach out to her by calling ‘9137091370’ or by logging onto www.didikebolbo.com, with their suggestions and problems.

Kishor was not present at the review meeting and Banerjee herself evaluated the ground report on the campaign from across the state. Later, Kishor had separate meetings with the district presidents, MLAs and MPs for a ‘view exchange’ and to discuss plugging the loopholes in the districts especially in Kaliaganj, Kharagpur Sadar and Karimpur.

According to figures shared by the party, more than 30 lakh people have made calls, expressing their suggestions and grievances. Banerjee was impressed with the impact on the ground level.

With the BJP’s significant rise in Jangalmahal in the last panchayat and Lok Sabha polls, Kishor is focussing more on tribal and scheduled caste dominated areas to regain the TMC’s lost ground and has already launched special toll-free numbers like for Didi Ke Bolo exclusively for the welfare of backward class people.

Once a Maoist stronghold, Jangalmahal’s substantial vote bank of the Left Front has pushed the saffron brigade ahead of the ruling Trinamool Congress in recent years. This also helped the BJP create history by securing 18 Lok Sabha seats in the state this year.

From 2011 to 2018, Jangalmahal (tribal dominated areas in the districts of Jhargram, Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore and Birbhum) was a strong bastion of the ruling party in Bengal. But following the panchayat and 2019 parliamentary polls, the BJP has emerged as a strong contender in most tribal dominated areas in the state.

In 2014, Jhargram was won by the TMC's Uma Soren, who wrested the seat from Pulin Bihari Baske of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), ending the Left’s 42-year domination. However, this time the TMC fielded Beerbaha Soren against BJP’s Kunar Hembram and was defeated.

According to Election Commission statistics, even though the BJP lost to the TMC in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the votes of the saffron party increased significantly by 20 per cent in the Jangalmahal districts. Similarly, in the 2018 panchayat elections, the BJP increased its vote share by 27 per cent in Jangalmahal districts as Trinamool suffered a massive setback at Jhargram, Purulia and Bankura.

TMC sources say that ground reports show the party has made a comeback in these areas. One of the Trinamool's most significant achievements in recent times, they say, has been building up confidence among party leaders in Bankura’s Bishnupur and Sonamukhi areas. Both these parts went to the BJP after powerful TMC leader Saumitra Khan joined the saffron party and won Bishnupur in the Lok Sabha polls. Since then, the TMC was struggling to gain ground in the area but now it has emerged strong.

On November 27, the party has decided to hold a massive rally in Bankura as shakti pradarshan (show of strength).

Speaking to News18, Jay Prakash Majumdar, vice-president of the BJP’s West Bengal unit, said, “See, the Didi Ke Bolo campaign has become a headache for the TMC and a big challenge for Prashant Kishor ahead of bypolls. Frankly speaking, people are not talking about it anymore. It’s a dead project. They have removed nearly 90 per cent of Didi Ke Bolo hoardings from Bengal. This platform created by Prashant Kishor will not contribute anything to TMC because of its faulty planning. You will see the results in this bypoll as we are going to win all the three seats.”

However, a senior TMC leader, who wished to remain anonymous, rubbished the BJP’s claim. “Prashant Kishor's strategy has worked well in Bengal. With the Didi Ke Bolo campaign, we managed to understand basic problems faced by the people at the grassroots level. Also, those who left us and joined BJP came back to the TMC. This is the reason why some of the municipalities taken over by the BJP are now under control of the TMC as people are coming back to us.”

On the BJP’s allegation of Didi Ke Bolo hoardings being removed, he said, “Not a single hoarding was removed. This is false and its impact will be clear in the coming bypolls.”

Observers say the Didi Ke Bolo programme is not just a direct communication platform with the chief minister, but also has multiple ‘trackers’ and ‘buckets’ (software) where problems and suggestions are listed for prompt action.

More than 250 party workers are engaged round the clock not only to ensure each and every grievance/suggestion reaches the chief minister but also list them in various trackers and buckets for swift resolution. As suggested by Kishor, there are separate buckets for all the government schemes for people and multiple trackers for each to keep an eye on how many issues have been resolved and the time taken.