Can Prashant Kishor Deliver UP and Punjab to the Congress party?

Insight Chandra

Suryakiran Tiwari and Subhash Chandra

Prashant Kishor is the biggest name in election campaign management in India has taken up the challenge to manage Congress poll prospects in Punjab, UP and Lok Sabha 2019. After having led Modi’s 2014 Lok Sabha and Nitish’s 2015 Assembly campaigns, politicians and political parties have made a beeline infront of his office to manage their campaigns and give it a midas touch.

Can he deliver Punjab and UP?

In many ways, both these States will be a tough challenge for Prashant Kishor as the Congress party is not on a strong wicket. As per a recent report he has already sounded out the high command about the dismal prospects for the Congress party in these States.

Punjab

A series of Opinion polls shows that AAP is favoured to win in Punjab. The Congress party trails in most of the polls though ahead of the SAD-BJP combine. The Aam Aadmi party had an excellent result in Lok Sabha 2014 (from where it bagged all its 4 seats) and recent polls suggests that they are likely to do even better in the 2017 election. For the frst time a party emerged as a viable third alternative in a State that has essentially been a bipolar contest for decades.

In the 2014 election, AAP won the second highest vote share and the highest number of seats in the Lok Sabha election. With 30.4% votes, it was marginally lower than the Congress party at 33.1%. In the electorally important Malwa region, the biggest sub-region within Punjab (69 / 117 seats), AAP was the leading party with 31.6% of the vote. Its worst performance came in the Majha region where it won just 9.6% of the vote. The party finished 3rd in eight consituenices and in seven of these eight constituencies it polled more votes than the margin of victory. 13% of traditional Congress supporters and 17% of traditional SAD-BJP supporters voted for AAP. Kejriwal enjoyed the same popularity ratings as Rahul Gandhi with 16%.

As per recent polls the AAP is likely to gain significant vote share particularly from the SAD-BJP combine and may win more than 45% of the vote, a landslide in Punjab. It is increasingly likely that voters fed up with political class and rising drug menace / security / low economic growth would give AAP a chance to prove their mettle. A Delhi like environment is likely to shape up over the next 8 months. 

However, the surveys also show that the AAP has no credible leader in the State and much of the interest in AAP is driven by an attraction towards Arvind Kejriwal. Outside Arvind Kejriwal, the next most popular candidate is Capt. Amarinder Singh from the Congress party. Having a popular CM candidate fits well into the Prashant Kishor election model.

Using the tried and tested Bihari vs Bahari Model, Prashant Kishor has launched a programme called ‘Coffee with Captain 1.0’, this is part of the ‘Punjab Da Captain’ campaign. There are 3 goals being driven using this programme –

  • Obvious connect with the average voters and in this case young voters who typically tend not to vote for the Congress party. In 2014, most of them voted either the AAP or the SAD-BJP combine
  • Given the absence of a viable CM candidate other than Arvind Kejriwal from the AAP, strengthen the leadership credentials of Capt. Amarinder Singh
  • Present Capt Amarinder Singh as a local while Kejriwal and AAP as the ‘Bahari’ party

Beyond this, Prashant Kishor and team could be closely working with the party to put in place an elaborate programme identifying issues, candidates, swing polling stations and households for targeting. His central communication team will work closely to monitor and manage public perception through mass and social media.

The challenges are immense, both the Congress party and SAD-BJP have been in power for many years and have had opportunities to influence Punjab’s future. Punjab which was the richest state (per capita, amongst large states) is now ranked 6th. A huge fall for a State which was once a benchmark for rest of the country. The top issues in the state include corruption, drug menace and unemployment. Unless Prashant Kishor and the Congress party can come up with real solutions to these problems, voters will be very inclined to vote for AAP irrespective of who their leader is. A loss in Punjab will not be a huge setback to Prashant Kishor but will certainly be a kink in the unparalleled rise of a political advisor.

Uttar Pradesh

PK is also running the campaign for Congress in UP. Unlike Punjab, the Congress party’s position in UP is in shambles. The party recorded amongst its worst performances in Lok Sabha 2014 in the state when it bagged only two seats (Gandhi family bastions partially helped by SP not putting up candidates) and recorded a vote share if 7.5%. This is the second lowest vote share recorded by the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh since independence (Chart below). Its vote share plunged amongst its once upon a time core vote segments: brahmins (-20%), other upper castes (-28%), muslims (-14%) and other dalits (-12%).  However,a small bit of good news is that the Congress made a surprise comeback in Deoband assembly by-poll after a gap of 27 years by winning the Saharanpur Assembly seat defeating the nearest SP rival in a heavyily populated Muslim seat (c.40%) raising hopes for revival.

The current strategy is to showcase Sheila Dixit as CM candidate (targeting the large Brahmin and Female vote) and Priyanka Gandhi to lead campaign efforts to help revive the upper caste, dalits and muslim vote bank (58% of the voters) of the party in UP. The problem for the Congress party in UP is the absence of any anchor vote segments, SP has Muslim-Yadavs, BSP has Jatavs / Other Dalits and BJP as Upper caste and Urban voters. The BJP has appointed an OBC leader as its party president as it is now aiming to a create a coalition of Upper Castes plus OBCs and Dalits. These three groups constitute nearly two thirds of the voters in UP. Mayawati on the other hand is attempting to build a coalition of Dalits, Muslims and Upper Castes (58% of the voters) while SP is trying to build a coalition of Thakurs, Yadavs and Muslims (38% of the voters).

Essentially, the Congress party will have to compete with the swing upper caste vote against every party. They will have to compete for the Muslim vote versus SP and BSP and compete for the Dalit vote versus BSP and BJP. The task is therefore much more complicated than Punjab. The strategy as it currently appears is still in development and probably not fully thought through. Voters will tend to finally align with a party that is seen as a winner and the Congress is likely to appear as a winner only if it aligns with either the SP or BSP. The SP facing anti-incumbency may not be the obvious choice and party old timers would like to ally with Behenji. However, BSP doesn’t see currently much value from this relationship given the low vote share of the Congress party. However things could change closer to the election and indeed If Prashant manages to convince Mayawati of allying with Congress, it will be a coup of sorts. This in our view will be a big factor that could determine the success of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh

If this doesn’t succeed, he may try to form a mahagathbandhan of sorts of smaller parties. Nitish is already trying to merge some ex Janata Parivaar constiuents like Ajit Singh’s Rashtriyal Lok Dal which has pockets of influence among Jats in western Uttar Pradesh. This group is expected to form a alliance of smaller parties like Peace Party, faction of Apna Dal, Quami Ekta Dal etc. to take on SP-BSP-BJP.

The challenges are immense given that there no party organization left in the State, dearth of local leadership to take on Maya-Netaji and absence of anchor vote segments. As per current opinion polls, the main contest is between BJP and BSP. The top issues in the State include deteriorating law and order, corruption, development, unemployment, price rise and poverty. However, unlike Punjab, loss in UP will neither be a setback to Prashant Kishor nor mar his reputation. An spirited performance will help garnish his credentials further. 

One has to admire Prashant Kishor for taking up challenging tasks of trying to win both Punjab and UP for the Congress party. While losses can be seen as setbacks by many, it should actually be seen as a brave attempt by a successful advisor in choosing a challenging task. Should he deliver wins in one or both States, Prashant Kishor’s name will be etched in India’s political history for a very long time.

If both states are lost, PK will either need to re-tool his approach towards election campaigns particularly when running campaigns for weaker parties or set lower expectations from the very beginning. Either way, the era of professional political advisors has truly begun..