With three high-level meetings in the last four days, the stage is set for political strategist Prashant Kishor to join the Congress. On Saturday, 16 April, Kishor gave a detailed presentation on the roadmap to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections to a gathering of senior Congress leaders headed by party president Sonia Gandhi at her 10 Janpath residence.
He had two other meetings at Sonia Gandhi's residence again on the evening of Monday and then on Tuesday. During these meetings, he is said to have met senior leaders Priyanka Gandhi, Mukul Wasnik, KC Venugopal, Randeep Surjewala, Digvijay Singh, Ambika Soni, and Kamal Nath.
So what led to the Congress finally deciding to bring Kishor in?
And what would be the nature of his association with the party?
How the Congress Finally Bit the Bullet on PK
"Be prepared for the second coming of Prashant Kishor," a Congress leader told this reporter through a voice note on the afternoon of 10 March, the day the results of the five recent Assembly elections were announced.
The leader didn't specify what was meant by "second" – whether it was in reference to the political strategist's work with the Congress' Punjab and Uttar Pradesh campaigns in 2017 or whether it was to do with the unsuccessful negotiations between the party leadership and Kishor in 2021.
However, this was irrelevant. The bottom line was that after the Assembly election debacle, there was a significant increase in readiness within the party to engage with Kishor.
And this readiness was palpable at every level, not just the top leadership.
"We need help. We need a major overhaul in our organisation and our thinking," a social media volunteer working for the party for more than five years, said.
A firm believer in the Congress ideology, the volunteer had earlier been a strong critic of any kind of arrangement with Kishor, accusing him of "having zero convictions." Clearly, there has been a change of mind.
Failed Negotiations of 2021
In 2021, Kishor and the Congress had detailed discussions regarding working together. However, the negotiations were unsuccessful due to what were claimed to be "fundamental differences."
Sources say that the negotiations didn't end on a good note and there was a heated exchange as well between the two sides.
But the door was never completely shut mainly for two reasons.
The Congress may not have agreed with the treatment prescribed by Kishor, but many in the party concurred with his diagnosis of what plagues the party.
Kishor, on his part, also seems to have understood that while he may be able to achieve success at the state level through leaders like Mamata Banerjee, MK Stalin and YS Jaganmohan Reddy, a national challenge to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was impossible without the Congress.
In numerous interviews over the last one year, Kishor has been saying that "the idea and space that the Congress occupies is vital for the Opposition."
Between 2021 and 2022, Kishor's blueprint for the party and the changes he is seeking have more or less remained the same. The main change has been in the receptiveness of the Congress party.
The 5 State Elections Sealed the Deal
The results of the 5 state elections sealed the deal, particularly from the point of view of the Congress.
The results destroyed two aspects the Congress had been drawing solace from:
That it can compete well with the BJP at the state level as it had in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh in 2018
That it can overcome challenges from regional parties, such as its defeat of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP0 and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab in 2017
The loss in Uttarakhand despite the BJP changing chief ministers twice and in Goa despite a two-term anti-incumbency destroyed the first myth. On the other hand, the drubbing at the hands of AAP in Punjab along with last year's loss in Kerala against the left destroyed the second belief.
The results of 10 March showed that the Congress was now weaker than even in 2019. Its status as the main Opposition in the country was being challenged by regional parties. And within the Congress, questions were being raised over the leadership of the Gandhis. The G23 leaders may have been the most obvious manifestation of this. But it also happened in much subtler ways with other leaders.
Sources say that many leaders, including a few regional satraps, had openly begun ignoring Rahul Gandhi's suggestions.
Kishor is being seen as a means to address the weaknesses in Congress' electoral strategies as well as strengthen the position of the party leadership as he had done with the regional leaders he has worked with.
Back and Forth Over the Role
However, there has been a great deal of back and forth regarding Kishor's exact role.
One proposal by a section of Congress leaders was to involve Kishor as a consultant handling a specific campaign, such as the Gujarat elections due later this year.
However, this proved to be a non-starter given Kishor's public stand that he had left the political consulting space.
It was clear that Kishor's innings will now be as part of the party and not as a hired consultant.
Earlier in April, there was a strong buzz in the party that Kishor will be joining the Congress as a general secretary. The announcement was about to be made but was cancelled at the last moment.
He may still be made general secretary but it is important to note that Kishor hasn't demanded any specific post in the party. However, he has asked for the freedom to implement his plan for 2024.
If he is indeed given this authority, then it would make him the most powerful leader in the party after the family, irrespective of the post he gets.
In some ways, it may make him the Congress' answer to the role Amit Shah played in Narendra Modi's campaign in 2014.