NEW DELHI: With the sun in crushing force on the streets of Varanasi, it did not appear to be the most suitable day to appropriate the hottest real estate in politics.
But in a room whose defining characteristic was its sheer profusion of wood panels, Prashant Kishor, backlit by the only window, was undefeated - at least by the heat. His kurta-pyjama exhibited a remarkable sterility for a man about a mud-slung town. The sheer whiteness of it against all that dark wood was disconcertingly serene given what he was trying to orchestrate outside.
As is wont with Mr Kishor, a refined portion of what he does - even when sequestered in a forbidding wooden room - has a way of transitioning quickly to a broader audience. If it didn't, he wouldn't be very good at his job. His own conviction is that what helps him nail it is his ability to remain, at least publicly, the B-story. He is resolute about refusing interviews. His go-to technique for informal interactions is to conduct the conversation entirely in questions. Ask if he thinks the crowds are big enough for Sonia Gandhi and the likely reply is "Are they not big enough?" Plod on to query why he thinks he has a chance in Uttar Pradesh and be prepared to encounter "Why do you think I don't have a chance?"
As media crews scrummed into position below, clouds suddenly barreled across the sky, their huddle darkening the window. "See, that is luck," Mr Kishor said, pointing outside. "I didn't plan that."
Not too far, the roadshow for Sonia Gandhi, age 69, had begun. The first few minutes were WhatsApped to Mr Kishor by one of his many volunteers assigned to the eight-kilometre route of the Congress president. The video threw up another unanticipated development, this one less welcome than the change in weather: instead of the white Mercedes sun-roofed SUV she was meant to use, Mrs Gandhi was moving in a regular SUV. To be clearly visible, she had to lean out of a half-open door.
That was not the plan.
Mr Kishor's iPhone rang. "Tell her she should get into the open car, tell her to change," said the distinct voice of one of only two people who can direct Mrs Gandhi. There was a quick exchange about the SPG or Special Protection Group and the conditions it was imposing upon Mrs Gandhi's journey. The conversation ended, and Mr Kishor placed a call: "Tell Madam to change to the other car. The open car."
For the next few hours, as Mrs Gandhi's convoy crawled, this is how Mr Kishor would auteur the attempted hacking of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency. Through a series of short calls, video briefs, offering virtually no instructions and soliciting no information except an occasional estimate of the crowds.
By about 2 pm, a number in double digit thousands was tossed up for consumption to the media. Authenticate as needed. A section of the Congress was also seeking verification. "They wanted Allahabad, Lucknow, any place else," Mr Kishor reportedly revealed to the very few within the party who backed his endeavor at the design stage. "I said either Varanasi or forget it."
That Go-Big-Or-Go-Home theme is what the 39-year-old strategist has bet on with everything he has: his credentials as an agent of the victories of first the PM in 2014 and then Nitish Kumar in Bihar, and far more compellingly for the Congress, the political capital of 24X7 access to the Gandhis. "Look in all media for the last 30 days...the last 60 days...tell me which party has got more coverage than Congress," sources say he declared at a recent review meeting, claiming a crowding out of the party's far heftier opponents in Uttar Pradesh.
To aides who are trained to test what they describe as field work against substantial amounts of data, Mr Kishor has said that by December, he hopes to have the Congress miraculously placed as the runner-up in Uttar Pradesh with the support of Brahmins, upper castes, non-Jatav Dalits (the Jatavs are Mayawati's supporters traditionally) and other non-Yadav backward castes. After that, he is convinced, the Muslims in the state will align with the Congress, providing the last mile in India's largest state. His calculation is based on landing 37% of the vote share with a campaign tightly wound around those groups. "There is a feeling in the Congress that take everyone along," he said at a party meeting recently. "The idea should be you appease select groups and then govern for all. Congress does the opposite - it tries to appeal to all and then if it's elected, it starts appeasement."
That sort of messaging can take time to permeate. For now, his mission is just to get the party started, to have the Congress beat its traditions and instincts by being an early mover. Hence the months-old disclosure of a Brahmin-centric strategy; the pinioning down and announcement of a Chief Ministerial candidate; the meeting of Rahul Gandhi with thousands of party workers at a Lucknow open-air arena with the media as witness; the drive-through of Mrs Gandhi in Varanasi much before other parties have pulled up their blinds.
Each of these was preordained a disaster by most of the Congress leaders privy to Mr Kishor's schema. His strategy, party sources said, runs from collaborative to combative, a range not always covered nimbly. He co-opts feedback on his plans, but does not reshape them easily. "I understand it," he allegedly told aides about the resistance he regularly confronts. "Nothing has gone right for them for so long. Anything new - the immediate concern is, what if it goes wrong?"
Of late, he has been able to rely on incremental gains to prove he is not just winging it. When he planned an interaction for Mr Gandhi with party workers in last week of July, he chose a massive ground in the Lucknow often used by former Chief Minister Mayawati. He was insistent on inviting the media. Congress seniors were worried about empty rows as also Rahul Gandhi's ability to provide reassuring answers - with the media watching - to cadre left moribund by the party's fourth place in UP in the general election.
The police says 50,000 people attended the meet. Mr Kishor's aides informed the media there were more than 70,000. He told the Congress that in his book, Rahul Gandhi "got 8 out of 10 answers right." The Lucknow event, according to those who work with Mr Kishor, was intended as a primer for everyone involved: for the 46-year-old Rahul Gandhi in interacting publicly with workers; for the Congress in learning to trust its specially-recruited strategist; and for I-PAC, the organization he chiefs, in managing the Varanasi roadshow just four days later.
I-PAC estimates it will place 1,200 workers in Uttar Pradesh in the last three months before the election is held; it currently has about 800 people covering the state. The most junior among them were patrolling different stretches of Mrs Gandhi's route. Dressed uniformly in black t-shirts and jeans, they scribbled into notebooks, skittish when asked about how or why they joined Mr Kishor's start-up. "I was born here," said a young man with glasses who was assigned with two colleagues to a rooftop near a statue of Kamalapati Tripathi. "I care about UP. Not politics, but UP. That is why I am here."
Mr Kishor, kilometres away in his five-star hotel, couldn't have scripted the moment better. The one big maneuver missing from the list of those that Mr Kishor has either coaxed or coerced is a job description for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. There are few who believe that reports in June about her running for Chief Minister were not planted by him in an attempt to force the party's hand. If that was indeed a pressure tactic, it boomeranged. The Congress, riled by the leak, whether genuine or otherwise, retaliated by stating that not only was it untrue that Priyanka would be the face of the campaign, but that even the possibility of her holding large rallies outside the Gandhis' political homes of Amethi and Rae Bareli was in the slim-to-none category. For Mr Kishor, it was a blaring signal from the party to stay in his own lane.
But to confidantes, he has said that he is working to a plan - in a month, he plans a big announcement with Mr Gandhi. After his primacy is established (to squelch any talk of Priyanka eclipsing him), her own appearances will begin, perhaps not in the form of big election meetings, but smaller gatherings that could be presented as "a mass contact program". Much will depend on her mother's health.
It was close to 2.30 pm when a phone call alerted Mr Kishor that Mrs Gandhi was not well. Through the Congress leaders gathered in the city, there had been a whirring all day that she had fever. They were told by Mr Kishor's team that she was switching cars and would be back on the road soon, an assertion simultaneously made to reporters. Those near Mrs Gandhi were instructed to have her stop less frequently to interact with the crowds, conserve her stamina, not lean out of the door of the closed Tata Safari she was using on the instructions of the SPG in stretches designated unsafe for the roof-top Mercedes.
About 30 minutes later, television channels showed Mrs Gandhi back on the road in a Muslim neighbourhood. The clouds were long gone. The narrow multi-storeyed houses bulged with spectators, the streets were saturated with supporters. Hours later, this somewhat selectively-representative visual was dispatched by I-PAC to the media to claim a phenomenal success, a trick of the trade Mr Kishor has allegedly appended from BJP President Amit Shah. It is their growing hostility and rivalry in the weeks after the success of 2014 that reportedly untethered Mr Kishor from the BJP.
Critics of the compact-sized strategist say that till then, BJP bosses had indulgently allowed Mr Kishor to exaggerate his role in the Prime Minister's triumph. Detractors have called him out as a mercenary, a slighted man who left the BJP for Nitish Kumar in 2015 looking to settle scores with his former boss. Supporters of Mr Kishor say that even in closed groups, he is economical in recalling those times, insisting that talk of earlier political assignments is cheap.
The crossover from the BJP to Nitish Kumar and then the Congress, say close aides, does not make Mr Kishor an itinerant without ideology, swiping right and then centre-left on a political Tinder. "Good governance, a politician who has shown he or she can deliver" is his pre-requisite for backing a candidate, they claim, speaking on the condition of anonymity (confidentiality is an imposing feature of the dynamic between Mr Kishor and his friends, aides, and his I-PAC workers). "Look at Narendra Modi, Nitish, Sheila Dikshit, even Amarinder Singh. He really believes they are good administrators," they offer unconvincingly. In moments less contrived, they say Mr Kishor occasionally acknowledges that signing up with the Congress involves more heavy-lifting than just strategy; this is a party whose depletion has been heightened by a systems failure.
By 6.30 pm, after a lengthy and unscheduled stop, Mrs Gandhi was too unwell to continue. News channels binge-reported on what followed: she was at the airport on a drip, an air ambulance was being considered, a local hospital was on stand-by, the Prime Minister tweeted his concern. A little after 10 pm, she flew to Delhi on a chartered plane. The news that she had dislocated her shoulder would not emerge for hours. She is still recovering in hospital.
After Mrs Gandhi's departure, in a corner of the lobby at the Taj Hotel, Mr Kishor was toying, however demurringly, with the accoutrements of a political high-roller. Ajay Rai, the Congressman who ran against the PM in 2014, sat across him for a bit. He was followed by an elderly Congressman, accompanied by a medical attendant, who offered his home in Hajipur as an election office for the area. Then came a local politician escorting a young man who wanted to contest the election. "If you could put in a word," the politician urged. Mr Kishor nodded.
At a late dinner, picking negligibly at a vegetarian thali, he was joined at his table by a young cop, recently appointed to a senior position in Varanasi. They swapped information on where the crowds had been thickest, the sturdiness of the arrangements, the word on the street (they agreed it was coalesced around sympathy and concern for Mrs Gandhi). Official estimates put the turnout for the road-trip at about 15,000, nowhere near what the PM pulls during his Varanasi visits, but nevertheless a number the Congress could own up to.
To those whom he trusts - at least enough to ensure that they will, when needed, relay his thoughts - Mr Kishor has said that unlike the politicians he is surrounded by, Uttar Pradesh will not define his role in 2019. "If I lose Uttar Pradesh, as everyone says I will, the game is over for me. And if I win...what could be a bigger result than that? Even a general election will not be the same as winning UP," he has reportedly concluded. Authenticate as needed.