After its interminable deliberations on its many leadership issues, the Congress may have a new element to add to the mix: Prashant Kishor. The 44-year-old announced on NDTV on the day that Mamata Banerjee swept Bengal that he was giving up his day job as election strategist. Now, reliable sources say that "PK" as he is known has been given three days by the Gandhis, who are at the core of the Congress, to decide on whether he will join the party not as an advisor but as a top-rung official.
PK met yesterday for four hours with the Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and their mother Sonia Gandhi.
PK has a reputation for enjoying a challenge - his earlier gigs have involved underdogs like Jagan Mohan Reddy and in Bengal, his client Mamata Banerjee and he were up against the unmitigated might of the PM and Amit Shah. If it's a challenge he's still looking for, he's come to the right place. The Congress is top-heavy with the Gandhis - Sonia is the chief but it is son Rahul who calls the shots in an undeclared but outsized role, daughter Priyanka is in charge of the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh which votes next year - and none of them seem to have a clear handle on how to overhaul the party. A cohort of 23 Congress leaders ("the G-23" have formally asked for more effective and visible leadership; wishful thinking so far as exhibited by the Punjab crisis, where Amarinder Singh as Chief Minister is battling near-daily attacks from in-house rival Navjot Singh Sidhu, with mediation by the Gandhis and a three-member committee of the party that has yet to deliver any change. All this in a state which votes in months - and one of the few states where the Congress retains power.
PK was enrolled by Amarinder Singh in 2017 to help him win Punjab; he has cabinet status there. In earlier interviews, he has acknowledged that the Congress High Command's indecisiveness, as well as a scattershot approach which has seeped into all aspects of its functioning, has been tough to work with - he said this in the context of Uttar Pradesh, where he worked with Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi in the last election who allied to ward off the BJP from taking charge of the state.
But authoritative sources tell me that PK is rather excited by the prospect of trying to regenerate the Congress - in interviews after the Bengal election, he was categorical that a serious Opposition effort to take on the BJP in the next general election cannot be expected to make any mark unless the Congress, as a national party, is central to the scheme.
It is not as if PK has not traversed from background advisor to active politician before. In Bihar, he was given cabinet minister-status by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar but that affiliation went up in flames when he was expelled from Nitish Kumar's party over a series of differences including the Chief Minister's growing dependence on the BJP as his ally.
Sources say "The PK Plan" to reanimate the Congress has already been submitted by the strategist to the Gandhis. He wants to set up a nine-person brains trust with members including Raghuram Rajan, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and industrialist Rajiv Bajaj. Rahul Gandhi's question-answer sessions conducted on social media with some of these thought leaders and experts were a dry run of this PK Plan.
The Make Congress Move Again agenda also prioritizes internal elections from the block-level upwards. With the centre dispatching investigative agencies against a series of political announcements. PK also wants the Congress to make a formal announcement that it will only take campaign donations by cheque.
He has reportedly made it clear to his prospective bosses that while he will be available as their sounding board, he will ensure that the party is aware of and in sync with their strategy on key issues. But as a member of the party, PK will have to follow hierarchy - at least for public consumption - to ensure that the Congress' different leaders including those in G-23 do not feel bruised by his powerful role. PK has so far under-performed on this front in different states where his direct line to the party leader resulted in serious fissures and revolts.
PK has made it clear that he believes that the BJP can be taken down if the Opposition unites and works with far more team spirit than it has in the past. The gambit that he is considering will require him to work with a constellation of regional leaders, many of whom he has handled through earlier assignations. With the fattest call sheet on account of theses earlier jobs, PK has the gateway to his mission. The question now is whether the Congress and its First Family can help or hamstring that.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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