The election strategist who once shot to fame for propelling Narendra Modi to Prime Ministerial victory, is now in the news for helping shape his party’s defeat in West Bengal. Prashant Kishor, a political consultant who is currently not a part of any political party, but is as much a part of political discourse in the country as any party leader, has won today along with the DMK and All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. His I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee) — a political consultancy which has received appreciation and brickbats in equal measure — has been part of the two high profile campaigns in the two crucial states, and in this outing, Prashant Kishor and his company scored 2/2. However, does Prashant Kishor have a ‘magic touch’ that makes parties win elections, as proclaimed by several people? Or is he just a shrewd businessman who has a knack for hitching his cart to the winning horse?
Prashant Kishor, who has a background in Public Health, first shot to fame in 2014 when he managed the political campaign of Narendra Modi and helped the BJP leader to victory and the Prime Minister’s chair. Even before the 2014 BJP campaign though, Prashant has been associated with the BJP and Modi; he was part of Modi’s 2012 campaign in Gujarat when he became the Chief Minister for the third consecutive time. He created CAG — Citizens for Accountable Governance — the group that helped with the Modi campaign in 2014.
In 2015 however, Prashant Kishor — who was called one of Modi’s most trusted political strategists — broke away from the BJP to manage Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) for the Assembly elections in Bihar. He formed his new company I-PAC — Indian Political Action Committee — through which he offered his services to the JD(U) in Bihar. This was before Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi were part of the same alliance; in fact, Nitish was considered one of Modi’s harshest critics back then. In fact, in 2018, Prashant Kishor also joined the JD(U) and was elevated to the party’s Vice President post, before being kicked out by party chief Nitish Kumar after a fallout.
Since 2015, Prashant Kishor has been a part of several winning election campaigns, including Amarinder Singh and Congress’s Punjab campaign in 2017; Jagan Mohan Reddy and YSRCP’s campaign in Andhra Pradesh in 2019; and Kejriwal and AAP’s Delhi campaign in 2020. In 2017, Prashant Kishor managed the Congress’s election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, however the party lost the race badly.
This time, Prashant Kishor and I-PAC were hired by the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. Both states were won by the respective parties, adding to Prashant Kishor’s image of being a master strategist, and I-PAC has already been signed on by the Congress in Punjab for their upcoming Assembly elections.
The larger question however is — would these parties have lost if Prashant Kishor had not been hired? Did Prashant Kishor build their victory, or has the victory of these parties built his reputation?
Why Prashant Kishor matters to parties...
Prashant formed I-PAC during the 2015 outing, and the company employs young graduates to crunch numbers for the parties that buy the services of the company. I-PAC and Prashant have been credited with creating inspired campaigns — Prashant Kishor and his team are known for coming up with catchy slogans and campaign names, like ‘Chai pe charcha’, ‘Lage raho Kejriwal’, Nitish ke 7 nishchay’, ‘Vidiyalai Nokki: Stalinin Kural’ etc.
Prashant Kishor’s organised political operations as opposed to old style politicking have helped parties with campaigning in new ways. There’s a focus on data and number crunching — almost like a corporate company — that I-PAC brings to the table. They also focus on each candidate’s mandate, image and talking points. Further, they help parties with mainstream media management, including professional media buying, social media management, branding etc, with slick designs that we all expect from campaigns today. They bring in survey-led decision making to parties.
...and why he doesn’t
However, political parties don’t just win because of good poster designs and catchy phrases. For the larger, older parties — it’s their cadre and their legacy that helps them win or lose. It’s their ideology that people look at when they’re voting, and the work they’ve done for their constituents. What matters to voters isn’t just smart social media campaigning, but a connection with the ground level party workers, which a company like I-PAC or a strategist like Prashant Kishor cannot provide. If the DMK and Trinamool won this time around, it is in large part due to their cadre on the ground and their ideology.
In Tamil Nadu for instance, Prashant Kishor did not have a smooth ride, with the DMK leadership being accused of hiring a north India Brahmin with no connection to Tamil Nadu to help with the party’s strategy. However, insiders say that the DMK decided to bring Prashant Kishor on while he was scouting for clients in the state, in order to ensure he doesn’t go to the opposition. With a lot of resistance, Prashant Kishor’s team was given a significant amount of control by Stalin, a decision that was criticised by many in the party. I-PAC had a 700-member team in Tamil Nadu, and was involved in number crunching, digital campaigns and coming up with the tagline for the party campaign.
If DMK’s decision to hire Prashant Kishor was to keep him out of opposition camps, then it has paid off in the election results, as DMK and its allies have won the election. However, unlike pre-poll and exit-poll predictions, the DMK+ did not make a clean sweep, managing to win only 153 constituencies (at the time of writing), and a sizable number of seats going to AIADMK and its allies. Critics within the party and DMK supporters have questioned the ‘Prashant Kishor magic’, adding that the DMK would have managed to win these many seats even without him. Further, some political observers pointed out that in the 2019 General Elections, the DMK had managed to win 38 out of 39 Lok Sabha seats without Prashant Kishor, and wondered whether the party would have had a better result without I-PAC this time around.
Ragamalika Karthikeyan is Editor — Special Projects & Experiments at The News Minute. She was formerly a Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament fellow at PRS Legislative Research. Views expressed are the author’s own.