How Prashant Kishor’s Team Swung the Elections for Nitish Kumar
A lot has been written about Nitish Kumar’s chief election strategist Prashant Kishor, a former public health specialist with the United Nations, who had been a part of Narendra Modi’s campaign team during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Kishor had direct access to Modi during the campaign to form the union government, parting ways after the elections, reportedly due to BJP’s internal politics.
It is now evident that Modi’s loss is Nitish’s gain.
- Kishor’s team includes media professionals, lawyers, money managers and digital media specialists among others.
- Almost 10,000 mobile numbers per district were added to various Whatsapp groups. The groups were used to send campaign messages in audio, video and infographics format.
- Calls were made to the electorate with campaign messages pre-recorded by Nitish.
- Hundreds of cycles with posters of the Grand Alliance’s campaign messages helped get the message across, even in areas that were off the common path.
- To counter the BJP’s attacks on Nitish, the IPAC team maintained a two hour turn-around time to communicate the Grand Alliance’s viewpoint.
- Kishor also convinced Nitish and Lalu to hold separate rallies to cover more ground.
A huge part of the credit for the Grand Alliance’s victory in Bihar goes to Kishor’s tireless band of men and women who gave up their comfortable professional lives in metropolitan cities and multinational corporations. Around 50-60 people are part of the Indian People’s Action Committee (IPAC), created after the dissolution of the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG, the group that assisted in Modi’s 2014 campaign). The team includes media professionals (including an ex-Google employee), lawyers, money managers (including IIM graduates) and digital media specialists among others.
Ironically, the innovative methods and work flow created during the BJP’s Lok Sabha campaign was effectively honed and tuned to suit the needs of the JDU and its allies.
The team was structured to serve a dual purpose, in the central war room and in the field; around 10 people were part of IPAC’s leadership that reported to Kishor, with the remaining members forming the ground coordination team.
An additional two-three team members were assigned to each district to work alongside 250 locally hired employees, or Central Resource Mobilisers (CRM).
With the help of party cadre and the CRMs, IPAC built a sample list of voters. Based on door-to-door campaigning, a panchayat level, then block level, and finally district level list of prospective voters was created.
This list served two purposes. They were included in Whatsapp groups (the number runs into hundreds), which were used for direct communication with voters for campaign awareness.
The team understood that Bihar’s core voters would not be available on Facebook and Twitter, but on Whatsapp, a lesson they learned well while planning the Modi campaign in 2014.
Almost 10,000 numbers per district were added to various Whatsapp groups. The groups were used to send across messages in audio, video and infographics format.
Another way of gathering numbers was through a missed call campaign. Pamphlets with Nitish’s campaign message, his signature and a phone number were distributed at various spots that were considered community hotspots or areas where people usually gather, like a tea shop. Giving a missed call to the number would get the caller a return call with Nitish’s recorded voice and campaign message.
The pamphlets were accompanied by a pocket-sized calendar, which also had all of Nitish’s elections promises.
Another purpose of these phone numbers, which were included in a central database, was to make direct calls. A 500 member call-centre made direct calls to prospective voters to get a sense of which way they would vote and collect feedback, which would then be forwarded to ground-level personnel who would then address it.
Another initiative that worked very well was the cycle campaign. Hundreds of cycles were acquired, with posters of Nitish’s messages and poll agenda stuck on them. Apart from local volunteers, women who had benefitted from Nitish’s social schemes were also roped in for this campaign, cycling around villages and towns. Areas like Muzaffarpur responded very well to this campaign. Campaigning on a cycle also ensured the volunteers were able to access areas that were off the common path, with the cyclists covering over 15,000 houses in each constituency.
To counter the BJP’s attacks on Nitish, the IPAC team maintained a two hour turn-around time to communicate the Grand Alliance’s viewpoint. Once a counter-message was formulated, it was disseminated to the the lakhs of numbers on Whatsapp and through the various official Twitter handles and Nitish’s Facebook page.
For instance, when BJP leaders Rajiv Pratap Rudy and Sushil Modi tweeted about Nitish’s campaign ads appearing on Pakistani news sites, the team took less than an hour to not only explain how the ads work based on the user’s location, but also countered with screenshots of BJP’s own ads appearing on Pakistani news sites.
IPAC’s digital team consisted about 15 people, 10 of whom were dedicated to social media. The team who would compile pictures and videos from Nitish’s campaigns and turn them around quickly into fresh photo and video messages to be distributed through the established communication network.
Using feedback from the prospective voters, IPAC helped build various points that were included in Nitish’s campaign speeches, like messages that criticised Modi for spending most of his time either campaigning in Bihar or travelling abroad instead of governing the country.
Kishor made it clear from the start that the campaign would be built around Nitish’s image and track record, and IPAC stuck to this message, ensuring the election became a battle of personalities between Modi and Nitish.
Kishor also convinced Nitish and Lalu to hold separate rallies to cover more ground. While Modi held major rallies with huge turnout in a single day, Nitish and Lalu would hold as many as 15 rallies individually, albeit with smaller turnouts but substantially better area coverage. Kishor also advised Nitish and Lalu not to share the stage together to try and keep Nitish free of the baggage Lalu carried after his conviction and disqualification.
The election saw a perfect blend of old-school grassroots-level poll resources being put to effective use by trained professionals. IPAC exploited every single mode of communication in their favour.
Most IPAC members we spoke with gave us a sense that they feel a part of a pioneering exercise to make political campaign management a professional, institutionalised exercise in India.