Attempts by the Congress and strategist Prashant Kishor to arrive at some sort of an engagement have formally failed once again. Congress' communications in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala and Kishor both announced on Twitter that the latter has declined the offer to join the Congress as part of the Empowered Action Group (EAG).
The EAG was recently created by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to prepare for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Several questions arise from this development:
What was the deal-breaker?
Is there any scope for a revival of negotiations?
What next for Prashant Kishor and the Congress respectively?
What Was the Deal-Breaker? A Story of Two Tweets
The answer to this is in the difference between the tweets put out by Surjewala and Kishor within a space of 24 minutes.
This is what Surjewala tweeted at 3.41 pm on Tuesday, 26 April:
And this is what Kishor tweeted at 4.05 PM:
The tweets reveal two aspects of difference between Kishor and the Congress:
1. Responsibility Without Power?
While both are on the same page that Kishor was offered to be part of the Empowered Action Group, there seems to be a difference of opinion in terms of the exact role. While Surjewala has stressed on "defined responsibility", Kishor writes "take responsibility for the elections".
It seems that Kishor's concern was that he would be stuck with the responsibility of managing the Congress' campaign for the 2024 elections, but without any real power to bring in the organisational changes that he considers necessary to meet this challenge.
Basically, the concern was with an arrangement that involved responsibility without power.
To be fair, Kishor isn't the first person to resist such a position within the Congress. Rahul Gandhi's resignation as Congress president in 2019 was also partly driven by similar factors. It is believed that Gandhi felt that the buck for the party's performance stopped with him but he didn't have any real power to bring major organisational changes, mainly due to entrenched interests.
2. 'Leadership', 'Transformational Reforms' to Address 'Structural Problems'
It is not clear exactly what structural changes Kishor suggested to the Congress that may have been received with some resistance from sections of the party.
Sources in the party said that Kishor had made suggestions regarding key positions such as that of the party president, the Congress Parliamentary Party leader, the UPA chairperson and organisational changes that would cut the influence of many leaders presently in key positions.
"What he suggested would have held a lot of influential people in the party accountable for the failures of the past few years. A lot of people in important positions would have lost their clout," revealed a leader from a north Indian state.
In addition to these two factors that are evident from the tweets, there also seem to have been differences within the Congress regarding Kishor's entry.
3. Divisions Within the Party
Sources say that leaders like Randeep Surjewala, Mukul Wasnik, and Digvijaya Singh were not very keen on giving into Kishor's suggestions.
Kishor's meeting with TRS Chief K Chandrashekhar Rao and the lack of clarity regarding his association with I-PAC is another reason being cited by a section of the Congress for the "trust deficit".
Leaders close to Rahul Gandhi by and large were lukewarm towards Kishor's entry as was Gandhi himself.
On the other hand, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Kamal Nath are said to have been most keen on his entry. Veerappa Moily was another vocal backer, though he didn't have much of a say in the negotiations.
However, even some of those in favour of bringing Kishor in and agreeing to most of his suggestions, say that he should have been more "patient". "His diagnosis was accurate and he put forward some sharp ideas. But the kind of changes he wanted cannot be agreed upon beforehand," said a senior party leader involved in the meetings around Kishor.
"Congress is not like a regional party where a few diktats can turn things around. Even Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi never had a free hand to make such far-reaching changes. There's no question that an outsider or recent entrant would have been given such influence," the leader added. A few leaders said that the "Sunil Kanugolu approach" is more suitable to the Congress than the "PK approach", referring to Kishor's former colleague who is now working with the party campaigns in Karnataka and Telangana. Kanogolu is known to work in a low profile, behind-the-scenes manner.
Is There Any Scope For Revival of Negotiations?
The nature of Kishor and Surjewala's tweets do reflect a cordial tone. For instance, Surjewala's emphasis that Kishor declined the party's offer is uncharacteristic of the usual Congress approach, which would have been to say that it was the party that "rejected" the offer.
On the other hand, Kishor had deleted a tweet very similar to the one he eventually put out. Besides a few words here and there, a major difference between the deleted and final tweet was that Kishor added the adjective "generous" to the Congress' offer of joining the party and becoming part of the EAG.
This is what Kishor tweeted at 3.59 pm and deleted soon after.
Since the overall tone of Kishor's tweet is not sarcastic, it can be assumed that this was to add another level of cordiality.
Given that both the Congress and Kishor by and large want the same thing in principle – a strong national challenge to the BJP – future negotiations between the two cannot be ruled out.
What Next For Prashant Kishor?
Notwithstanding the breakdown of talks with the Congress, it does seem that Kishor is sticking to the announcement he made after the West Bengal victory in 2021 — that he is quitting the political consultancy space.
Though he still does retain some link with I-PAC, it does seem that his plan is to be part of mainstream politics and not consultancy.
The Facebook page 'Team PK' suddenly became active on Tuesday after a gap of few weeks. Early on Tuesday morning, it put up a quote of Kishor saying that, "As long as I am alive, I will remain dedicated to Bihar."
The page has also been running a sponsored post on both Facebook and Instagram for some time now, asking people to join "Team PK" and "work directly alongside Prashant Kishor" as he "embarks on a new journey".
So it seems that while I-PAC will continue to work for important non-BJP clients and Kishor is also likely to continue interacting with leaders in this space, it is possible that he may parallelly try to establish his presence as a politician, possibly in his home state Bihar.
What Next For Congress?
This is no doubt a more complex question.
While the negotiations with Kishor may have ended for now, the Congress' structural problems still remain.
However, it seems that the party may have chosen the path of incremental change and not the dramatic transformation that Kishor seems to have been proposing.
A major negative fallout of the Kishor fiasco would be on morale. Despite the reservations of a section of party leaders, Kishor did promise to "try something new" in the Congress and figure a way out of its current stagnation. With this option now closed, there is a fear among party supporters that now it would a return to more of the same.
The first milestone to watch out for would be the Chintan Shivir in Udaipur due in mid-May and then the organisational elections due later this year.
Meanwhile, the Congress is faced with a formidable electoral challenge in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh where elections are due later this year.
While the Gujarat campaign is in disarray by most accounts, in Himachal the party seems to be making comparatively better moves, such as the appointment of Pratibha Singh as PCC chief and creation of key committees for the elections balancing different factions in the state unit.