Prashant Kishor: Master Strategist and the Man with the Midas Touch
THIS man is going places, scoring hits along the way, leaving a trail of wounded adversaries in his wake. His latest killing field: Bihar. About the only thing he did not do there during the recent election campaign was to board a chopper and go from dais to dais, addressing public meetings. On every other place on the Mahagathbandhan’s winning strategy lie the footprints of Prashant Kishor, now surely the accredited master of the election game, a doubly-proven one-man political consultancy that few can now dare take lightly.
He left Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s side shortly after his stunning 2014 victory, taunted and cast aside by Amit Shah, and resolved to make the Nitish Project his riposte to the BJP president. The ammunition Kishor gathered and positioned threw off Shah’s siege on Bihar and packed him off, licking wounds. This was as much a grudge match between Kishor and Shah as between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. “He seldom spoke about his deep sense of being humiliated and sidelined by Amit Shah after the 2014 victory,” a close aide of Kishor told The Telegraph, “but to many of us it was evident he was working with quiet but steely determination to score this one against the stratagems of the BJP.”
To those who worked closely with him —from well heeled data crunchers to hard boiled politicos — Kishore never once let his sense of confidence down, not even when the Modi-Shah shop landed in Bihar with the might of its publicity and propaganda resources, and the prime minister’s continued ability to electrify rally grounds. “To the very last, he maintained that his base figure was 145, not a seat less. We suffered moments of doubt, he never ever did. He has proven to insider and outsider alike that he is an entity to reckon with,” the aide said.
When Kishor arrived to formally join the Nitish establishment this summer, very little was in place other than Kumar himself, who resumed as chief minister. Conventional wisdom afloat across Bihar was that the Modi team would do an encore and sweep the state. There was no strategy, no resources, no alliance. Kishor was, to begin with, an alliance-sceptic. He thought Lalu an image liability, and he believed that Brand Nitish was a strong enough base to mount a winning campaign on.
That changed dramatically on the day Modi addressed his first campaign rally at Muzaffarpur, on July 25. The prime minister lashed out with equal belligerence at Nitish and Lalu; the message Kishor read in that double-barrelled assault was that what really worried the BJP was the prospect of Nitish and Lalu coming together.
Kishor swiftly changed tack, turned to alliance espousal and put it on fast track. The Nitish-Lalu tandem was ready in a week, the Congress riding piggyback; its launch was a rousing rally at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on August 30. There on, almost overnight, rag-tag turned, against the run of play, into clockwork. Nitish and Lalu began to campaign with a unison that took even the two by surprise. Of the many things that Kishor deserves credit for, achieving cohesion at the top between Nitish and Lalu was probably the most critical.
He cut through party factions and negotiated personally between them. He was seen by both leaders as an honest go-between, with no axe to grind other than that which would strike at the BJP. Kishor carried no political or Bihari baggage, although he did have divided loyalties — there was a mission to run for the Nitish-Lalu combine, and there was a personal mission against Amit Shah to wage, too. Fortunately for him, the means and ends of both converged.
What he privately calls the “breakout moment” of the campaign resulted from the trust he was able to conjure between Nitish and Lalu. That moment was the declaration of all 243 Mahagathbandhan candidates at one go by Nitish Kumar. It spoke of painstaking homework, a deep compact between alliance partners and killer timing. The BJP-led alliance was, at that time, way behind on the sharing and allocation of seats. “That one move took our rivals by surprise and inspired our own ranks no end,” said a senior minister in the Nitish government. “We had come back from behind to lead the game.”
Kishor has two trademark job conditions — a free working brief and proximity to his boss. He occupied the upper floor of the Narendra Modi residence in Gandhinagar; in Patna, he lived and worked from Nitish’s Circular Road bungalow. One concession he did make to Nitish in return was foregoing his jeans and T-shirts, instead wearing a set of white pyjama-kurtas for the duration of his assignment — a socialistic rather than corporate appearance. Apparently Nitish Kumar insisted on this, and ordered a tailor home to have Kishor newly kitted out.
On the campaign itself, Kishor was quick to dump horsecart socialism and proceed unabashedly with latter day market tools and methods. He binned the traditional green of the JDU and RJD and brought on flaming reds and yellows onto the banners — garish colours, but closer to those preferred by the masses. He didn’t bother with party symbols, at least to begin with, and made Nitish the emblem of his campaign — it was a dare to traditionalists, but that is one of Kishor’s patents: challenge convention, think out of the box. His bet was that the core theme of this campaign was Nitish — either Biharis wanted him over any other as chief minister, or they were ready to bid him goodbye.
It was not a mindless splurge; Kishor did not have the resources at hand. Cleverly, he decided not to spend on television or print advertising; the BJP would have beaten the Mahagathbandhan hollow in that respect. He went, instead, for the cheaper and longer lasting option of the street. He crafted an audacious empire of billboards and banners across the state — Nitish was everywhere the eye went in Bihar.
To merely call Kishor a backroom boy par excellence and leave it at that would be doing him a disservice. It isn’t true that he has been glued most hours to his chair and iPad/iPhone, across from Nitish’s office. He has taken breaks. He has slipped into the back of his sky blue SUV and driven around the state. On the eve of each polling phase, Kishor was out in the field, ensuring personally that all was as he planned it, seeing to last minute requirements, shaking his team up to check for slack. “He has been indefatigable of energy,” says Pavan Varma, JDU spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member. “He has been spinning like a top all through.”
To effectively mind front and back, Kishor had a memory challenge to undertake — so many parties and candidates, such a boggling medley of caste and creed groups, so many complex combinations. His brain seems to have gone like a scanner through all of that. He knows each of Bihar’s 243 constituencies like the lines of his palm, down to the details of which independent candidate would potentially help or hurt who. Name a seat and Kishor would tell you which way it was going and why. The result has probably followed his script more closely than anybody else’s.
It helped that he had a hand-picked team of researchers and techies constantly feeding him; it also helped that he could constantly communicate with “friends” in the BJP from his days in the Modi backroom. Kishor was always a cat’s paw close to his adversary’s game plan. There were those who long suspected him to be a Modi mole in the Nitish tent; Kishor always knew the opposite to be true. Oftentimes, during this long campaign, there were adverse leaks from his team members, but Kishor always had more plants on the other side to feed off.
He needs no more of it; he’s got a plate much fuller than he expected or publicly claimed. Now is probably the time to sit back and relish the look of it — what Kishor wants most is a break. The Bihar yoke has meant he’s been mostly neglectful of his ailing mother, as well as his wife and child back in Delhi. It has also meant he’s not been able to pay attention to himself — what he wants most, aides say, is to get back his fitness. He’d better. The line of clients at his doorstep is getting longer by the minute.