Has the Congress party’s dalliance with poll strategist Prashant Kishor ended even before it could formally begin?
Former Goa Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro, who switched from the Congress to the Trinamool Congress last week, publicly stated that his decision to defect came after a meeting with Kishor. Faleiro’s disclosure coincided with rumours that Kishor and his team at the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) were also wooing other Congress leaders, including former Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, to the Trinamool Congress.
Rumours that Kishor was all set to join the Congress party had begun to swirl in July, after he met leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra for a long discussion. Interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi had reportedly joined the meeting that happened at Rahul’s 12, Tughlak Lane residence on July 13, via video conference. The Gandhis and Kishor had made no official comment on the poll strategist’s induction into the party or on the likely responsibility he was set to be given.
However, several Congress leaders as well as some I-PAC members had, anonymously, indicated that the Gandhis and Kishor were keen on joining hands. “The only issues the party high command had to sort out,” sources said, “were the timing of Kishor’s joining and the scope of his role within the Congress.”
Veteran Congress leader M. Veerappa Moily had, in fact, said publicly that Kishor had informally begun working on a reform blueprint for the party and criticised those within the Grand Old Party who were opposed to his formal induction.
Barely three months later, has Kishor gone from being the messiah who could miraculously extricate the Congress from its recurring electoral ignominy, to a Machiavellian political mercenary out to plunge the already beleaguered party into complete liquidation?
Sources who were privy to internal discussions on Kishor’s induction into the Congress confirmed to The Federal that, for nearly a month now, there has been no real headway in the party leadership’s talks with the poll strategist, but also insisted that it was still “premature to completely rule out” a revival of “negotiations” between the two sides.
However, the sources added that in light of Faleiro’s recent remarks and the impression that Kishor had been actively helping Mamata Banerjee in wooing other Congress leaders into the Trinamool Congress, several senior party members were sceptical of the poll strategist’s motives and doubted his commitment to helping the Gandhis overcome their mounting organisational and electoral challenges.
Sources say that since the Gandhi siblings met Kishor on July 13, Rahul had spoken individually to various party members to gauge their opinion on Kishor’s possible induction into the Congress. Additionally, Sonia too had tasked Priyanka and party leaders AK Antony, Ambika Soni, and KC Venugopal to informally discuss the contours of Kishor’s possible induction and likely role with other colleagues. It is learnt that though a majority of party leaders backed the plan to get Kishor on board, there was no consensus on the powers he must be given.
A member of Kishor’s I-PAC told The Federal that the poll strategist, who is convinced of transitioning from electoral consultancy to actual party politics, had made it clear to the Gandhis that should he join their party, he must be kept in the loop on every decision, big or small, that the Congress intends to make on organisational and political matters. This, Congress sources say, had been the point of divergence among various party leaders.
“A large number of leaders believed that the best way to use Kishor’s services was to carve out a new department for election strategy and appoint him as its in-charge general secretary. The sense that our colleagues got from their discussions with members of other parties who have engaged Kishor’s services was that he is not a team player,” a senior Congress leader told The Federal. The leader added, “While Kishor’s loyalty to the party top brass may be unwavering, he undermines practically everyone else. Given the huge egos that the Congress already has to balance and the constant complaint of some leaders feeling sidelined, it was obvious that many felt Kishor may become a liability if he is given wide-ranging powers and this would deepen attrition from our ranks.”
Others in the party who were not part of the informal consultation team set up by Sonia Gandhi, but did put their views across to the leadership on Kishor’s entry, cited different reasons to be cautious of the poll strategist.
“The role of Kishor and I-PAC in the electoral successes of various parties cannot be denied, but it is also important to analyse how many of these victories were because of Kishor and in how many he played an incidental role. If you look at the campaigns he has been involved with – the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Nitish-Lalu-Congress Mahagathbandhan in Bihar, AAP in the 2020 Delhi election, Jagan Reddy in Andhra – it is clear that his role, at best, was that of a force multiplier because each of these results were on expected lines. In the recent Bengal and Tamil Nadu elections, the Trinamool and DMK had an edge, but Kishor succeeded in giving the impression that without his help, these parties would have suffered huge defeats. There is a lot of bluster,” said a Congress MP. The MP said that Kishor’s “real challenge” was helping the Congress win Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and “he failed miserably”. Incidentally, after the Uttar Pradesh debacle, Kishor had publicly said that he would not want to work with the Congress again since leaders in the party have different ways of functioning and there is no uniformity of action.
A Congress leader who is part of the so-called G-23, told The Federal that Rahul and Priyanka’s “fascination” for Kishor stems from “basic lack of understanding on how the Congress functions and what it needs to revive”. The leader, a former chief minister, wondered whether the Gandhi siblings “asked Kishor of his ideological convictions… one day this man is helping the BJP and the next he is helping AAP, then he moves around offering services to Trinamool while breaking away Congress leaders and yet, we want to spread the red carpet for him on the assumption that he will turn things around for us but without any real guarantee of success.”
There are those in the Congress who believe that if the Gandhis want to dismiss the many red flags that are being raised on bringing Kishor into the party, then they must take a guarantee from him that neither he nor I-PAC would work with any other political outfit at least till the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
“Kishor has made it clear that his priority client is Trinamool and that he would help Mamata Banerjee expand her party’s footprint at the cost of the Congress in states like Goa, Assam, Meghalaya… his affiliation with Jagan Reddy hasn’t ended either and Jagan’s sister (YS Sharmila) has publicly said that Kishor’s I-PAC is going to help her new outfit (YSR Telangana Party) in the 2023 Telangana assembly polls even though the Congress is eyeing a revival path in the state… You (Kishor) can’t say you wish to join the Congress and help it nationally while damaging us in the states,” says another Congress functionary.
There is still some speculation within the party that the Gandhis may revive talks with Kishor after the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur Assemblies are conducted in February-March next year – particularly if the Congress miraculously wins in Uttarakhand, Punjab and Goa despite making a mess of its organisation in these states. The bigger question, though, is whether Kishor would be willing to join the party then and on what terms? Or, will Kishor, with his high ambitions, craft his own political pedestal, held up by the many satraps he has helped over the years?