Prashant Kishor’s Congress entry plan layered with too many ifs and buts
Desperately searching for a panacea to the unending troubles within her party, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi is likely to take a final call this week on the terms of engagement with poll strategist Prashant Kishor.
Ever since the Gandhis and Kishor got back to discussing a joint future ad nauseam, commentaries have been made listing out reasons why the Congress needs the strategist more than he needs the party.
The Congress’s need for an astute strategist cannot be overstated. The abject failure of the party high command in correcting ideological and organisational deficiencies along with its cavalier disregard for unvarnished feedback from leaders and grassroots workers alike have collectively pushed the Grand Old Party into an ever-deepening abyss of electoral setbacks.
Yet, as the Gandhis deliberate on the possibility of Kishor’s formal induction into their party, they must also dispassionately analyse whether the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) founder is the strategist that the Congress really needs.
Irrespective of what his cheerleaders may say, Kishor’s supposedly impressive claim of repeatedly striking gold at the hustings for his clients is dubious at best. His ‘successful’ strategising for Narendra Modi’s BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls or, in subsequent years, for Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP in Delhi, the erstwhile RJD-JDU-Congress mahagathbandhan in Bihar, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress in Andhra, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in Bengal and MK Stalin’s DMK in Tamil Nadu is fallible because these were all parties that were largely tipped to win irrespective of I-PAC’s services. At best, it may be argued that I-PAC amplified the extent of an otherwise assured victory for each of these parties in the respective elections.
However, when it came to the real challenge of delivering a victory for the Congress and Samajwadi Party alliance in the 2017 UP assembly polls, Kishor failed miserably. But then, he conveniently blamed the rout on deficiencies within the Congress and went to town claiming he wouldn’t work with the party again.
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Kishor returned to talk shop with the Gandhis last year. However, failure of the two sides to reach a consensus on Kishor’s exact role in the Congress led to a parting of ways. Kishor then went on a rampage against the Congress, delivering its already edgy leaders to Banerjee’s Trinamool in droves, state after state – from poll-bound Goa to Assam, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Meghalaya.
While shopping for disgruntled Congress leaders in Goa, Kishor even claimed that it was time for the Congress to cede its space to the Trinamool, which in his view then, was better equipped to take on the BJP. The Trinamool crashed out in the Goa polls, though the Congress too failed to return to power.
The Goa misadventure, coupled with allegations by Trinamool’s Bengal leaders of Kishor trying to foment trouble between Mamata and her nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, reportedly led to a souring of ties between him and the Bengal chief minister.
Thus, when Kishor returned to hawk his wares for the Congress this March following the party’s humiliating rout in the five assembly polls, the chips had been down for him too. But then, being the good salesman that he no doubt is, Kishor convinced a bulk of Congress leaders – from rootless wonders and technocrats such as Ambika Soni and Jairam Ramesh to seasoned electoral warhorses such as Kamal Nath – that he is the messiah who will pull the Congress out of its morass.
Of course, there are several Congress leaders who aren’t entirely smitten by Kishor’s sales pitch. Kishor’s detailed presentations to the Congress leadership outlining his vision for revitalisation of the GOP ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls has been scrutinised by a seven-member panel constituted by Sonia Gandhi last week. The panel, headed by P. Chidambaram, was also asked to suggest what role Kishor may serve for the Congress going forward – that of a hired strategist or of a leader inducted into the ranks with an assigned role.
The panel, also comprising AK Antony, Ambika Soni, Digvijaya Singh, Mukul Wasnik, KC Venugopal and Randeep Surjewala, submitted its suggestions to Sonia Gandhi on April 23. She is likely to hold discussions on the report with party colleagues today (April 25).
The panel has ostensibly endorsed most suggestions given by Kishor but isn’t unanimous on his formal induction into the party as a senior office bearer, The Federal has learnt. Digvijaya Singh even went public with his views on Kishor, telling NDTV in an interview, that there’s “nothing” in Kishor’s proposed blueprint of reforms that the Congress leadership “doesn’t already know”. Of course Singh qualified his comments by insisting that Kishor’s presentation was “impressive” and that the Congress president will take a final call on the strategist’s induction into the party.
Party insiders told The Federal that Singh isn’t the only senior leader dissenting with the popular mood in the Congress that favours Kishor’s induction with a powerful portfolio. Antony, Sonia’s go-to colleague in the recent past for heading panels variously mandated to suggest a course-correction or dissecting electoral routs, has expressed reservations similar to Singh’s.
Few other senior party leaders who were not part of the Chidambaram-led panel but were individually consulted by Sonia and Priyanka too have raised several red-flags. These include Kishor’s ideological commitment to the party and his ongoing or imminent ‘contracts’ with Congress’s rivals such as K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) in Telangana and YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh.
Interestingly, through the weekend, Kishor was a guest of Rao at the latter’s chief ministerial residence in Hyderabad. TRS working president KT Rama Rao also announced that his party had signed a contract with I-PAC but claimed that Kishor had “nothing to do” with the organisation. The announcement hasn’t gone down well with the Congress, particularly its Telangana unit. Though the Telangana CM has recently gone on the warpath against Narendra Modi, the Congress remains the principal rival of the TRS in the state. Congress MP Manickam Tagore, the party’s in-charge for Telangana and a close aide of Rahul Gandhi, too made a veiled attack at Kishor, posting on Twitter: “Never trust someone who is friends with your enemy”.
Officially, Kishor had dissociated with I-PAC after the Bengal polls last year, claiming he was taking a sabbatical from his job as a poll strategist and wanted to eventually “quit this space”. During his discussions with Congress leaders last week, Kishor was told in no uncertain terms that if he joins the party, I-PAC will have to cease its activities with other political outfits, said sources. Congress fears that though Kishor may officially give up the reins of I-PAC, he’ll continue working for the outfit behind the scenes, helping it pick up clients who may or may not be potential allies of the GOP.
This perceived ideological promiscuity of Kishor, said a Congress leader, is something the Gandhis “simply cannot afford to wish away”. Several other party leaders The Federal spoke to claimed they had told the high command and other senior leaders that Kishor’s “ideological commitment to the Congress is suspect”.
A senior party leader who was consulted by Sonia Gandhi about Kishor before she set up the Chidambaram-led panel told The Federal, “this man (Kishor) has no moral compass; politics is just a business for him… his company still takes credit for Modi’s victory in 2014 but has he ever expressed regret for his past association with the BJP… most parties he has worked with in the past, whether it is Kejriwal or Mamata Banerjee, they all suddenly start treating the Congress as a bigger enemy than the BJP? He broke away so many of our leaders; even while he was begging us last week to enrol him, he was engineering the defection of our Assam leader (Ripun Bora) to the Trinamool… how can we trust him?” The leader said he had listed all his reservations against Kishor to Sonia but “got the sense that Madam had already made up her mind on getting him in the party”.
A section of party leaders is also not enamoured with Kishor’s suggestions for the Congress’s makeover. Among the catalogue of proposals he has made to the party are those on the need for the party to have a non-Gandhi president or working/vice president, internal elections to all posts, mass enrolment of members and assigning them specific tasks of organisation-building, aggressively wooing Dalits, tribals and minorities, extensive and intense grassroots campaigns backed by aggressive marketing, etc.
Kishor has also proposed pre-poll alliances in states such as Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra (all states where he wants the Congress to ally with his past, current or future clients) but wants the Congress to fight solo on nearly 370 Lok Sabha seats, including in states where the party has no presence such as UP and Bihar. Notably, in Bihar, his equations with Congress’s old ally, the RJD, are practically non-existent as Lalu Yadav reportedly considers Kishor to be a BJP man.
The section of party leaders who have been left most aghast by the Congress leadership’s perceived eagerness to work on ‘Kishor’s reform plan’ are several members of the infamous G-23 (party leaders such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari, Vivek Tankha and others who have been demanding organisational reforms since August 2020).
“This is ridiculous. A majority of these suggestions were made by us in our letter to the CP and we were instantly branded by our eminent colleagues as traitors, BJP agents, dissenters, power-hungry men eying posts and Rajya Sabha berths… If what we had suggested was treachery and blasphemy, how has it suddenly become acceptable when it is coming from a man who repeatedly sells his services to the highest bidder and is obviously angling for a post in the party to serve his political ambitions,” a G-23 member told The Federal.