The Congress-Prashant Kishor courtship is over, once again.
Kishor, who had made detailed Powerpoint presentations to the Congress leadership last week, listing his vision of reforms for the crisis-ridden party ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, announced on Twitter that he had “declined the generous offer” of the Congress to “join the party as part of the EAG & take responsibility for the elections”.
Interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi had decided to constitute an EAG (Empowered Action Group) that would suggest various actionable strategies for the revitalisation and poll-preparedness of the Congress before the 2024 general elections.
While the Congress, according to the party’s media cell chief Randeep Singh Surjewala, had “invited” Kishor to “join the party as part of the group with defined responsibility”, the strategist declined the offer.
In his tweet, Kishor said, “In my humble opinion, more than me, the party needs leadership and collective will to fix the deep-rooted structural problems through transformational reforms.”
So what really went wrong this time between the Congress and PK, as the poll strategist and founder of Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) is popularly called? As was widely reported, Kishor had held several rounds of discussions with Sonia, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and other senior leaders of the party. The Congress president had then constituted an eight-member panel – headed by P. Chidambaram and with AK Antony, Ambika Sonia, Digvijaya Singh, Mukul Wasnik, KC Venugopal, Surjewala and Vadra as its members.
As reported by The Federal earlier, in its report submitted to Sonia, the panel had largely endorsed the revival blueprint laid out by Kishor but was not united on the question of his induction into the party and the powers he should be given.
Several reservations against Kishor’s entry into the Congress had also been expressed. These included doubts about Kishor’s ideological commitment to the party, his unstated political ambitions, his well-known political promiscuity as a man willing to hawk his wares for any political party through I-PAC, etc.
An influential section of party veterans was also unwilling to buy Kishor’s argument that the Congress must view him and I-PAC as two distinct entities working independently of each others’ political and contractual obligations.
This section of Congress leaders had made it abundantly clear to Kishor that if he were to be inducted into the Congress, the I-PAC would need to cease its affiliation with other outfits such as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samiti and YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party – a proposition Kishor was unwilling even to consider.
However, despite these reservations being made clear to Kishor, the strategist spent the past weekend as a guest of Rao in Hyderabad. It was during Kishor’s Hyderabad layover that the TRS announced its contract with I-PAC for the next state and general elections. Further, TRS working president KT Rama Rao dubbed the Congress a “redundant institution” that had been “tried, tested and dusted”.
All of this naturally did not go down well with the Congress top brass. The party is the principal Opposition to the TRS in Telangana. GOP leaders who weren’t enamoured with Kishor’s sales pitch to the organisation also saw Rama Rao’s broadside against their party as being “scripted by Kishor”.
Interestingly, in his interactions with the Congress leadership last week, Kishor had strongly advocated for a TRS-Congress tie-up in Telangana in which he pitched the Congress as a junior partner – a proposal squarely rejected by the Congress, particularly since Rahul Gandhi is scheduled to visit Hyderabad around May 7 to launch his party’s campaign for the state’s assembly polls due next year.
Kishor, too, wasn’t happy with the terms of engagement that the Congress was reportedly offering to him.
Congress sources say Kishor, despite canvassing the virtues of collective leadership to the Gandhis, envisioned “absolute power” to revamp the Congress in a mould he believed best suited the organisation. Kishor’s condition was that he would only be accountable to the Gandhis and would prefer to be isolated from the views of other party colleagues, irrespective of their experience and seniority.
In essence, Kishor, Congress sources say, wanted to be a power centre unto himself – next only to the Gandhis – within the party. The Congress veterans obviously wouldn’t stand for such an arrangement and this was politely conveyed to Sonia Gandhi, who reportedly endorsed the sentiment.
There is, however, another aspect of this premature annulment of the Congress-PK union. Congress sources say the biggest votary of PK’s induction in the party as a senior office-bearer with extensive powers was Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and not the Gandhi clan as a whole.
Over the past year since Vadra has positioned herself as the party’s key troubleshooter, ostensibly to fill the void created by the demise of Sonia’s trusted advisor Ahmed Patel.
Vadra has almost always succeeded in getting her way despite the reservations of senior colleagues, and at times, even her mother and brother. This had been amply visible when she practically ran roughshod over the majority view among Punjab Congress leaders who did not want Navjot Singh Sidhu appointed as the state unit chief when the party was gearing up to axe Amarinder Singh as chief minister. Rahul Gandhi too had been cagey about thrusting Sidhu on the party’s Punjab unit because a majority of Congress lawmakers – almost all MPs and most MLAs – had told him individually and collectively that Sidhu as PCC chief would be a disaster.
However, Vadra lobbied hard for Sidhu and ultimately had her way. The impact this had on the Congress, particularly after Charanjit Singh Channi was appointed CM and later projected as the CM face during the polls, much to Sidhu’s chagrin, was for all to see.
Similarly, Vadra was given a free run in deciding the party’s poll strategy for UP, including her supposedly arbitrary decisions of not allying with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, fielding 40 per cent women candidates irrespective of their political heft while not contesting the polls herself despite being the face of the party’s campaign, et al.
This time round, though, Sonia and even Rahul seemed unwilling to act purely on Vadra’s advice and favoured a wide consensus instead. As is now evident, an influential majority of Congress leaders did not place much trust in Vadra’s instinct on PK.
Of course, with its dalliance with PK now over, the Congress will have to be extremely cautious of the strategist’s future political moves. Contrary to popular opinion, PK does not possess the magic wand to deliver unlikely electoral victories – his failure to reboot the Congress in UP in 2017 or aid a Trinamool victory in the uncharted territory of Goa last month are clear examples. What he does excel at though, as the Congress is all too familiar with, is to fish in troubled waters and spoil the party for outfits that have left him high and dry.
Last year, after the Congress abruptly ended its talks with him, PK had launched a damaging defection drive that weaned away several Congress leaders to the Trinamool. He had also taken potshots at the Gandhis and the Congress’s place under their leadership in India’s polity. His comments were readily picked up and splashed as prime time news by various media outlets that have, over the years, contributed to building an aura around Kishor as India’s foremost poll strategist.
It remains to be seen whether Kishor, slighted once again by the Congress, returns to acting like a jilted lover but the party will need to stay vigilant.
There are key Assembly polls to Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh scheduled later this year where Kishor’s past client, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, is trying to replace the Congress as the BJP’s principal challenger.
In Gujarat, the Congress has been trying to woo Naresh Patel, an influential industrialist and philanthropist from the electorally significant Patidar community, into its fold.
Patel, a close friend of Kishor, has repeatedly indicated that he has kept his options open for an imminent political debut and was getting feelers from the Congress, AAP as well as the BJP.
The Congress’s in-house firebrand Patidar face, party working president Hardik Patel, is also unhappy at being sidelined by the state leadership of the GOP and has hinted that he may be forced to explore other outfits for his electoral debut. Will Kishor deliver the two Patels to a Congress rival – the AAP, or even the BJP?
Similarly, in Himachal, the Congress is set to effect an organisational revamp, placing Mandi MP Pratibha Singh, widow of the late Virbhadra Singh, as chief of the Himachal Congress. The move may upset those Congress leaders in Himachal who had traditionally been in the anti-Virbhadra Singh camp and were hoping that his demise would finally force the Congress high command to give them more important roles. With the PCC chief’s post likely to go to Pratibha Singh, some of these leaders may want to explore a future with AAP that is fast making in-roads into Himachal, a state bordering Punjab where the AAP scored a historic victory last month, but has no credible leaders in the state right now.
Interestingly, soon after news of the Congress-PK break-up became public, Navjot Sidhu posted a photo with the strategist on Twitter and tweeted: “Had a wonderful meeting with my old friend PK … Old wine, Old gold and Old friends still the best!!!” Sidhu has been sidelined in the Congress ever since the party’s rout in Punjab and is reportedly getting edgy over his political future. Like Sidhu, there are several other “old friends” that PK has in the Congress, many of whom are currently concerned about their political future owing to the Congress’s deepening existential crisis.
In the on-again-off-again Congress-PK saga, the Congress’ past experience has shown that hell hath no fury like a poll strategist scorned. With its revival blueprint still up in the air, is the party gearing up for another face-off with the ideologically promiscuous PK?