New Delhi: Five days ago, a poster at the Congress office in Lucknow called out Prashant Kishor, sarcastically offering five lakhs for any information on the election strategist's coordinates. The poster was brought down hurriedly on the orders of senior leaders, the partyman responsible for it was suspended for six years, and on Tuesday, the Congress gushed on Twitter about Mr Kishor, offering some belated TLC to the 40-year-old while crediting him with a big role in the party's victory in Punjab.
- Prashant Kishor handled Congress election strategy for UP, Punjab
- Credited by Captain Amarinder Singh for Punjab win
- He's talking to team about joining Congress, say sources
Through the inquest of the Congress' debacle in Uttar Pradesh - one of three states that he managed - Mr Kishor has not commented on either his own or the party's missteps, or what relationship they will have in the future. This morning, sources close to him said that over the next two weeks, Mr Kishor will consult with top members of his team - the data-crunching, election start-up called I-PAC or the Indian Political Action Committee - to explore whether any future association with the Congress should be as "an insider" - a member of the party, as opposed to an adjunct position, however senior.
However, top aides at I-PAC said later in the day - after NDTV reported the story - that "even speculation of him joining the Congress is completely premature."
Mr Kishor, whose antipathy for interviews is well-established, has said in the past that he has no wish to enter politics. But sources say that the Uttar Pradesh Project has taught him that the a section of the Congress used his status as a consultant both to curb his influence and to brand him as a big reason for its worst-ever result in India's politically most strategic state - it won just seven of 403 seats. Any future assignments, said Mr Kishor's aides on the condition of anonymity, would need to guarantee him the sort of access, time and input that allowed him to chart a winning campaign for Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab.
On Twitter today, the Captain, who brought the Congress back to power in Punjab after 10 years, purveying the party with its sole sweet spot in the recent elections, thanked Mr Kishor.
Sources in Mr Kishor's team say that he continues to enjoy the confidence of Congress bosses Rahul Gandhi and his sister, Priyanka. As the strategist surveys his options, the election in Gujarat will be a crucial factor. The BJP has ruled Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state for 19 years uninterrupted. The Congress is, like in many other states, a spent force in Gujarat. And the emphatic defeat of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party or AAP in Punjab significantly depletes its chances of serving as a formidable challenger.
Considered an election wunderkind after he was credited with devising a high-tech and innovative campaign for PM Modi in 2012, he was hired by the Congress in 2016 to help change its fortune. He signed up to manage the party's strategy in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab and then, belatedly, in Uttarakhand. In Punjab, he found a willing and tireless ally in Captain Singh, at whose home he stayed, a fact often referred to by both men when reports emerged of clashes over selecting candidates and other key issues.
Sources close to the strategist say that when attributing culpability for the Congress' performance in Uttar Pradesh, it's important to remember that Mr Kishor's early suggestions that were devised as "game-changers"- including the promotion of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the presumptive Chief Minister- were rejected. He did his best, they say, given the determined opposition from the party's old guard, leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Raj Babbar, who were reportedly distrusting of Mr Kishor's ideas and his easy access to the Gandhi family.