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On Modi, Bengal, and Being a ‘Gandhian’: Prashant Kishor’s Journey

The man behind Modi’s win in 2014, Prashant Kishor, shares his journey with senior journalist Payal Mohanka. 

Updated
Opinion
8 min read
Image of Prashant Kishor.
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With the West Bengal assembly elections next year, there is a perceptible change in Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s demeanour. From someone who never hesitated to stridently shoot her mouth off, there is now a newfound restraint. This transformation is being attributed to Prashant Kishor, someone who is perceived as the whiz-kid of electioneering.

His detractors may dismiss him as the flavour of the season, but with a string of huge electoral triumphs behind him, Kishor’s contribution can’t quite easily be brushed aside: Gujarat 2012, Lok Sabha elections 2014, Bihar 2015, Punjab 2017, and the landslide victory in Delhi this year.

“I’ve Told Mamata Di That Mere Arithmetic Can’t Defeat Modi”

If there is one thing Kishor dislikes it’s being labeled a ‘political strategist’.

“I am a collaborator, an aide,” he tells me, exuding a quiet confidence, as he sits in the I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee) office in Sector V, Bidhannagar, in Kolkata. As someone who is being wooed by politicians of different hues, Kishor has honed political strategy into a fine art.

In his early forties, Kishor displays unbridled energy and an intense passion for elections and politics.

For the moment, it is his assignment from the West Bengal Chief Minister that is consuming him: the battle between the daughter of Bengal versus the vision for a better Bengal.

“I have told Mamata di that mere arithmetic can’t defeat Modi. The voter gives you a brief. Stick to that. Don’t breach that brief. Focus on Bengal and only issues that concern Bengal and the voters here.”

The chief minister is certainly listening.

Those familiar with her style are surprised. In the interest of the state, hopefully one will see that change percolate deeper in the realm of governance. For the bureaucracy in Bengal still seems disenchanted with its ‘autocratic’ leader.

“Bengal is not a done deal,” says Kishor, though the buzz in the air is that 2021 could well add another feather in his cap. But, of course, a week is a long time in politics, and a year a lifetime.

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Prashant Kishor’s Reverence For Gandhi

Trained in public health, Kishor worked for 8 years in the United Nations before entering the hurly burly of Indian politics.

In his growing years it was the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi that had the most impact on him. As a 17-year-old, when he was studying at the Patna Science College, on weekends he would take a train to the district where his father was the chief medical officer. At the railway station he would see posters quoting Gandhi: “Mai British sarkar ko agar salah dey sakta toh kehta ki saarey janata ko ghoshith kar do kay jab tak ticket nahi khareedengey tab tak train nahi chalegi.” (If I could advise the British government then I would have said let the citizens know that if they don’t purchase a ticket, the train will not move.)

As someone who just hopped on and off trains without a ticket, the young boy was quite peeved with this mantra. If that happened, then the train would never move, he felt!

Some years later, when he first went to Germany and saw people swiping their cards in buses, Kishor realised what responsible citizenship meant, and what the Mahatma had conveyed at the beginning of the 20th century. That lesson resonates to this day. Gandhi continues to be a revered leader for him. Kishor describes his own ideology as one of ‘Egalitarian Humanism’, with justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, the four basic ideals enshrined in our Constitution.

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“Modi Saw Some Utility In Me”

Kishor's eventful journey began in 2011 when he was working on malnutrition and met the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. “I was working in Africa at that time. I never came to work on elections and politics here. People imagine that I got a call and was appointed strategist and began advising and designing campaigns! It doesn’t work like that.”

It was one step at a time. Kishor found himself helping with speeches, handling Facebook, and spontaneously, the rapport grew.

Today, with his successful track record, for leaders like Mamata Banerjee, it is natural to want him on board, but way back in 2011, for Modi it may have just been an instinctive decision to allow an untried, untested Kishor the space he needed.

“Modi saw some utility in me. For him to realise that there is this kind of person who can contribute in ways that could marry the old traditional style of politicking and campaigning and add value, the credit for this should be given to him, not me,” says Kishor.

Without even realising it Kishor tread on uncharted territory and ushered a brand new concept in India. Unlike the US, the concept of a campaign manager did not exist here. “Like it happens to anyone who is the first mover in a particular domain, I had to struggle to create that space, because before me, there was no such professional set-up and no parallel to draw from.”

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Kishor Lived In Modi’s House For Three Years!

After 2012, Kishor felt that if he was looking at a pan-India scenario, he needed a formal structure, and CAG (Citizens for Accountable Governance) was born in 2013. At its peak, it had a 1000­-member team.

While he doesn’t like to talk about it, many are aware that Prashant Kishor has even stayed in Modi’s house for three years, something probably not even a relative of Modi’s has done!

They worked closely on the 2014 General Elections which saw Prime Minister Modi’s huge victory.

What had he seen as Modi’s chief strength?

“Modi had this unique mix of experiences. Fifteen years of being a Sangh Pracharak, firsthand experiences of society, and societal issues at the grassroots. Fifteen years as political organiser in the BJP. Then 15 years of being chief minister and then prime minister and the vast administrative experience. You put this together and there was this one person who had 45 years plus of experience across social, cultural, political and administrative areas. Tell me who else in India has this?”

Post the 2014 Lok Sabha elections Kishor and Modi parted ways.

Kishor’s Fall Out With Modi: “Nothing To Do With Amit Shah”

What were the reasons for the fall out with Modi?

Kishor said, “I was impatient. I wanted to get things moving at my pace. He was new as the PM. If I was in his place, I would probably have done the same. I would have been more bothered about understanding and consolidating. When you are the PM you have 10,000 things to worry about. You don’t want to unnecessarily create something which is new, which could be transformational, which may have even had your blessings and it was coming from someone whom you trusted. My joining Modi or my breaking away from Modi just had to do with what happened between Modi and me. There was no third person involved, contrary to what some may believe; it had nothing to do with Amit Shah.”

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Kishor’s Bihar Ambitions

For Kishor, it was clearly time to move on and create on his own what he had wanted to do within the government set-up. Early 2015 saw the creation of I-PAC with less than 10 people from his original team.

Today, I-PAC has a staff strength of 2500 and operates from offices in seven cities. “I-PAC is not owned by me. It’s like a co-operative. Its equity value is zero. We don’t own a single asset. Every month we have political parties reimbursing our expenses. I hunt to feed. I don’t hunt to accumulate.”

What does it take to design and execute an electoral campaign?

“I choose who I want to work with. Whether it was Bihar’s Nitish Kumar kay ‘saat nischay’, Punjab’s Captain ‘kay nau’, Delhi’s Kejriwal ‘kay dus’, through the campaign we made the leader repeatedly commit to those specific promises.” Kishor realised that no electorate goes through the manifesto but this tangible, quantifiable method of enumerating the chief concerns of the voters had greater benefits than an elaborate campaign.

Interestingly, he hasn’t attended any swearings-in. Once the elections are over, his job is done, and it is time for him to move on to new challenges.

The only exception he has ever made is in the case of Bihar. While he dismisses ambitions to become the Chief Minister of Bihar, it is evident that he is deeply committed to his home state. It is well-known within political circles that Kishor has recently refused a Rajya Sabha seat from the Trinamool Congress.

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“You Can’t Be With Gandhi & Godse At The Same Time”

“In Bihar I am not a campaigner. I am a political activist. I want to work at the grassroots. I am half-Bihari – my father is from Bihar, while my mother is from UP. If there is one challenge in this country, it continues to be Bihar. Despite being socially and politically vibrant, this state’s ranking hasn’t changed in the last 15 years,” says Kishor. Kishor’s ambitious campaign ‘Baat Bihar Ki’ has already been launched, with a goal to mobilise the youth of Bihar and usher in a new era for the state that lags behind in every parameter.

He not only stayed at the Bihar Chief Minister’s residence but also shared a father-son relationship with Nitish Kumar who often said for him, “there was no difference between his son Nishant and Prashant.”

But Kishor, who was the former JD(U) vice-president, fell out with the Bihar Chief Minister over differences on the Citizenship Amendment Act, and was expelled from the party in January this year.

“CAA was probably the trigger. My differences with Nitish Kumar were growing. I understand when you are in an alliance with the BJP there are political compulsions but you have to draw the line somewhere. When you support something like CAA not only are you doing immediate damage, you are becoming part of something that could institutionalise discrimination on the basis of religion, caste and class in a manner this country has never seen. CAA and NRC are just demonetisation of citizenship. There is 6 percent black money so demonetise everything. If 3 to 4 percent of your population is from outside, do you actually want to take on this exercise? And then the Delhi violence happened. You can’t be with Gandhi and Godse at the same time,” Kishor said.

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Kishor Has Only One ‘Blemish’ In An Otherwise Pristine CV

Kishor has often been asked if he had not realised he was siding with Godse when he joined hands with Modi. In his defence he maintains that post-2002 he saw Modi as a visionary who wanted to eventually be a statesman.

“When he won Uttar Pradesh and chose someone as radical as Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister, that, to me, was a huge U-turn from the path he seemed to have earlier chosen. His rhetoric changed and he was now talking about hyper-nationalism, India-Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim,” says Kishor.

Kishor is now making his foray in the south too by aiding the DMK in the Tamil Nadu elections in 2021.

In his so far pristine curriculum vitae, there is just one blemish: the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections of 2017.

“We could not execute what we had drafted, as our plans were continuously being altered by the Congress party who could not decide who would be the face of the campaign. I should be man enough to accept that I was over-confident; maybe I did not want to break my relationship with the party. Though eventually, on almost three occasions, I drafted my separation,” he adds, with barely concealed frustration.

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Eyes on Bengal

Kishor works closely with a wide spectrum of political beliefs. He finds huge takeaways from each exercise. This storehouse of experiences will surely stand him in good stead one day.

For the moment, the focus is Bengal.

“I am a nobody,” he says “And yet, I am playing a role in setting the agenda for West Bengal for the next 5 years. For me, success is directly proportional to the number of lives you can impact. Truly, this is what drives me.”

Sheer instinct says that surely one day in the not-too-distant future, this ‘collaborator’ could well take a huge leap in the rough and tumble of Indian politics. Could the kingmaker actually wear the crown himself?

(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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