Will DMK's Talks With Prashant Kishor Be Fruitful or Does Stalin Need More Than a Strategist?

Sohini Goswami

The Dravida Munnatra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu seems set to hire election campaign strategist Prashant Kishor, according to reports and sources in the party.

Kishor's Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC) has been a part of several successful election campaigns, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory script in 2014 and Jagan Mohan Reddy’s coming to power in 2019.

He is believed to have had a meeting with DMK president MK Stalin earlier this week. It is not clear if a deal has been finalised, but the meeting itself shows the DMK is gearing up for the next Tamil Nadu assembly elections, scheduled for 2021, but could be held earlier.

It is a must-win election for Stalin and the DMK cannot afford to lose a third straight Assembly election (it lost in 2011 and 2016 to the late J Jayalalithaa).

In 2016 and 2019, the party’s strategist was Sunil K, who had co-founded Citizens for Accountable Governance with Kishor. According to sources, Sunil had quit primarily to allow Kishor to take charge.

While Kishor's Hyderabad-based IPAC has been a part of several successful campaigns in different states, the DMK and Tamil Nadu will be unchartered territory. First, there is no clarity about the contours of the field and players who would compete in 2019.

While the ruling AIADMK and DMK have ruled Tamil Nadu alternatively since 1962, the next state election will certainly test the possibility of a third force. Despite the DMK's sweep in the 2019 parliamentary polls, the party has not been able to decimate the AIADMK in the by-election to nearly 25 Assembly constituencies.

This raises doubts over Stalin’s strategy at the grassroots level and ability to oust the AIADMK. Had he ensured a sizeable number of seats for the DMK in the bypolls, he would have become the chief minister by now.

In this backdrop, the 2021 state election, if not held earlier, may see superstar Rajinikanth join the fray, while another southern star-actor Kamal Haasan is likely to make a renewed effort with his political party.

In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the overwhelming narrative in the state was an anti-Modi wave. This was what the DMK capitalised on. Stalin took a strong anti-Centre stand and portrayed the AIADMK as a B-team of the Union government.

It created a narrative that the AIADMK had compromised on Dravidian values by allying with the BJP. This led to a sharp polarisation in the state and hence, third forces, like Kamal Hassan, could make little headway.

However, the dynamics of the Assembly election will be different and the ideological narrative will not be the central theme. It is also not clear if the AIADMK will continue its alliance with the BJP for the state polls, as a large section within the party doesn’t seem to be happy with the arrangement.

The saffron camp’s acceptance till now has been due to the Centre’s backing of the AIADMK and help to retain power in the Assembly, but for the next election, the party leadership may have a different strategy.

Star political entrants — Rajini and Kamal — may also manage to alter the equations greatly. Hence, conventional wisdom and past calculations, including 2019 results, may not reveal a roadmap for 2021.

All these make it a massive challenge for the DMK. A high-profile outsider to TN is also a risk for such an election. While neither Kishor nor Stalin has officially confirmed a contract, the polls will be a test of credibility of the DMK and any strategist that the party hires.

Kishor and IPAC had crafted strategies for Amarinder Singh and the Congress in the Punjab Assembly polls in 2017, as well as for the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U)-RJD-Congress Mahagathbandhan in Bihar.

Kumar later broke the alliance to renew ties with the BJP-led NDA, while Kishor also joined his party.

The star poll strategist was also consulted by Shiv Sena scion Aaditya Thackeray in the just-concluded Maharashtra assembly elections. Aaditya’s Jan Ashirwad Yatra was a key outreach plan devised by IPAC.