About a month ago, in an interview to NDTV, Prashant Kishor, political strategist, declaimed that he wanted to "quit this space". In the tradition favoured by great athletes, and eschewed by far too many CEOs, Prashant Kishor is ending his run as Backroom Boss at the top of his game. Just hours before his announcement, Mamata Banerjee had won the most emphatic victory of her life, her campaign ripened by Prashant Kishor's signature moves, including presenting her as a lone ranger in Bengal, fighting off a band of outsiders. "Too much bravado and machismo rarely work," said a source close to Prashant Kishor, explaining why he has made it a habit to redraft his candidate as the underdog, even when the politician is a powerful incumbent.
There are those who dismiss his outta-here claim as one of many foibles. More snarky assessments gauge it as made-for-TV drama, an attempt by the 44-year-old to corner a space for himself in the headlines about Mamata Banerjee's seismic victory.
If that was the point, it landed as intended, squarely on the front pages. But it is not as if Prashant Kishor had been an unsung hero till then. Since 2014, when he was part of Narendra Modi's strategy team, he has become something of an election celebrity, not least because of his apparent ability to deliver - all but one of his clients have made it past the finish line.
For the most part, he has navigated his relationship with the media carefully, agreeing to few interviews and only at times when his campaigns (or clients) appeared landlocked, or after they had closed out successfully. So it was in Bengal, where, before voting began, he appeared on a series of television interviews backing his claim, first made on Twitter, that the BJP would not cross 99 seats; if it did, he would forever quit the political arena, he said. The BJP rounded up 77 seats, so Prashant Kishor did not have to follow through on his threat (or promise, depending on where you stand).
In the midst of the month-long voting, Prashant Kishor made what then appeared as a rare public misstep - in a conversation on Clubhouse, he spoke of the BJP and the Prime Minister's appeal as significant in Bengal. BJP leaders seized the remarks to claim that Prashant Kishor, believing it to be a closed-group session, had conceded defeat. Prashant Kishor said he had only repeated what he had always stated publicly - that the BJP, led by Mr Modi, had emerged quickly over the last five years as a formidable force in a state where it had historically been a non-entity.
It was described as the fight of Mamata Banerjee's life. Many confronting a massive and ultra-aggressive campaign by the BJP, a series of leaders quit Mamata Banerjee's party to join the BJP. When the exits were at their peak, and seemingly uncontrollable, they included some of Mamata Banerjee's closest aides, including Suvendu Adhikari, who would go on to defeat her in the constituency of Nandigram. Those decamping for the BJP blamed Prashant Kishor substantially for their decision, alleging that he was appropriating powers far beyond those due to a strategist - like deciding on who would make a good candidate. Unperturbed, Prashant Kishor responded that winnability is key to strategy, so it's key to his remit. Those citing him as their reason to move were attempting a weak alibi for their own greed, he retaliated.
But it has become part of Prashant Kishor's MO to have a direct line to the top leader and, in doing so, alienating those who feel threatened by his inner circle status. In Bihar, Prashant Kishor was so close to Nitish Kumar, who hired him in 2015, that he lived for nine months in the Chief Minister's home. The next year, as Captain Amarinder Singh's strategist in Punjab, he was within constant presence of a leader not known for accessibility.
On May 2, when the results were declared for five states, Prashant Kishor had not just Bengal to his credit, but Tamil Nadu too, where he had worked with MK Stalin who became Chief Minister for the first time at the age of 68. That campaign, sources close to him reveal, was tough to execute because Prashant Kishor had transplanted himself to Bengal; didn't speak Tamil, which made it hard to work with large swathes of the DMK; and there were recurring leaks of private exchanges. So, a campaign that was being remotely managed by him also had to move offline, making the long-distance relationship even harder.
But it was in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 that Prashant Kishor got it wrong. His team admits that their strategy was wonky. Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi brought their Samajwadi and Congress parties together in a unique alliance; "UP ko yeh saath pasand hai (UP digs this combination)" was the tagline designed by Prashant Kishor who predicted the BJP would be emphatically defeated in India's most-populous state. Instead, UP outright rejected the 'Apne Ladke' offer and the BJP won one of the state's biggest-ever victories. It was a career low for Prashant Kishor who had been hired by the Congress. Sources who have discussed the disaster with him say "We had a plan but we couldn't execute it because the Congress didn't have the courage to go with our recommendations." They also concede that Prashant Kishor fumbled by agreeing to frequent changes sought by the Congress' top leadership.
It was the result of the Andhra Pradesh election in May 2019 that generated new momentum. Jagan Mohan Reddy, who he had worked with for two years was elected Chief Minister, and talks began between Prashant Kishor and Mamata Banerjee and MK Stalin for their states.
Since his retirement announcement on national television, Prashant Kishor has not divulged his plans. The assumption, for many - one that he has done little to challenge - is that he will enter politics. Partly because before his very public breach with Nitish Kumar, he seemed to enjoy the status of cabinet minister accorded to him in Bihar. And partly because his work with some of India's biggest regional leaders can make him the ideal liaison if the Opposition is serious about forming an anti-BJP league. His earlier work with the BJP and Narendra Modi has afforded him insight on how to counter them. He has leveraged this to reposition his clients, swapping the weakest facets of their persona for more appealing ones. So, Mamata Banerjee, cast by critics as autocratic and in control of a trigger-happy cadre, was redefined from Didi, a position of authority, to Bengal Ki Beti, the woman forced into a wheelchair by her vicious opponents. Jagan Mohan Reddy, perceived earlier as living off the spoils of his father's corrupt regime, became the leader who walked miles in Andhra Pradesh with padayatras to meet the poorest in their villages, going door-to-door to offer himself as a champion of their rights.
If Prashant Kishor is, in fact, shape-shifting into a politician, he has some experience in just how wrong that can go. In Bihar, he was given cabinet status by Nitish Kumar and made the Vice-President of the Janata Dal United. He ended up being expelled from the party. Those close to him say the BJP leaned heavily on Nitish Kumar to marginalize him, in part because of the role he played in the RSS' student wing, the ABVP, getting crushed in student union elections at Patna University. For months before being expelled, Prashant Kishor had also publicly attacked Nitish Kumar for not opposing the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which some hold as discriminatory against Muslims.
Prashant Kishor, sources say, has always held that it was Home Minister Amit Shah who created a chasm between the PM and him, and then propagated the theory that Prashant Kishor had greatly exaggerated his part in the BJP's lavish victory of 2014. Prashant Kishor has, especially after his Bengal result, said that Amit Shah's reputation of political acumen and potent instincts is greatly exaggerated. Critics of the election strategist allege the same of Prashant Kishor.
Having announced his sanyas from one-party campaigns, Prashant Kishor is now his own client; his experience in rebranding will need to turn inward.
(Manish Kumar is Executive Editor at NDTV)
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