There can be no war without a general, according to political strategist Prashant Kishor. A doctor’s son who worked in the public health sector before entering the political sphere, Kishor has a prescription for the ailing Congress that has brought cheer to party workers, especially in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh.
Kishor’s advice to the party is to make Priyanka Vadra the face of its campaign in Uttar Pradesh, and she has reportedly agreed to canvas all over the state and not just in the Gandhi bastions of Amethi and Rae Bareli. A senior Congress leader said Priyanka could address around 180 public meetings.
A colleague of Kishor's in Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC) said the decision to field Priyanka as the lead campaigner reflected the 39-year-old strategist’s firm belief in the presidential style of campaign. “He always says there can be no war without a general. He believes there should be a face to the campaign, and that brings in accountability,” said the IPAC member.
This is also an example of Kishor's 'disruptive campaign' strategy—a sudden action to evoke public reaction. The buzz around Priyanka has brought the Congress back into the electoral discussions in a state where it has been out of power for 27 years and has been reduced to a bit player.
Kishor was credited with creating Narendra Modi’s pro-development campaign in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He switched camps to craft Nitish Kumar’s victory in Bihar last year, and is now devising the Congress strategy for the assembly elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh early next year.
The Congress assignment was given to him in February, and he intercated with state leaders and karyakartas to understand the ground situation as well as the way the organisation works. “The role of IPAC is to strategise in collaboration with state leaders and implement on the ground what we design on the white board,” said IPAC founder Rishi Raj Singh. An IITian, Rishi cofounded Citizens for Accountable Governance along with Kishor in 2013.
It was in these interactions that the demand for Priyanka to lead the campaign came up. While the campaign is already on in Punjab, the Uttar Pradesh campaign is expected to be launched by the end of July, with a grand event for Priyanka’s advent. Whether she will just be the lead campaigner or also hold a party post is still being discussed. Looking to reclaim the Brahmin vote, Kishor plumped for Sheila Dikshit to be declared the chief ministerial candidate. Former actor Raj Babbar was appointed state Congress president in view of his connect with voters and his ability to take on the ruling Samajwadi Party. Ghulam Nabi Azad, who has been made general secretary in charge of the party in the state, is being projected as its Muslim face.
Priyanka will likely operate from Anand Bhawan in Allahabad, the ancestral Nehru home, thereby highlighting the traditional ties of the family as well as the Congress with the state. “It will be great if she joins the campaign,” said Dikshit, former Delhi chief minister. “She is very familiar with Uttar Pradesh.... She is a very, very great asset.... Naturally, if she comes in, she will add a lot of value to the Congress.”
Similarly, from discussions with state leaders and workers in Punjab, the IPAC team found that state Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh, who is leading the campaign, was seen as inaccessible and aloof. Data collected in the past one year had showed that though he had addressed a number of meetings, both in person and through Google Hangouts, he came across as terse and distant. The problem has been remedied with the 'Coffee with Captain' series of interactions with various sections of society, and now with the 'Halke Vich Captain' (Captain in your constituency) programme. “We are getting a lot of feedback from people,” said former MP Vijay Inder Singla about the two programmes. “This will help us in preparing our manifesto as we will know what are the expectations of the people.”
Also, 'Coffee with Captain' was planned as a disruptor to divert discussion from the Aam Aadmi Party, which started an early campaign, to who can be the best bet as chief minister and whether Amarinder fits the bill.
The Congress is in contest with the AAP to unseat the ten-year-old Akali-BJP regime in Punjab. The party would stoke the insider-outsider debate by stressing that the local stalwart Amarinder knows every nook and corner of the state, unlike the AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, who is from Haryana and does not understand Punjab and its sensibilities.
The Congress is heading the campaign, and the IPAC is the support system, said IPAC member Payal Kamat. “We supplement their efforts at the conceptualisation, execution and monitoring stage of the campaign,” she said. The team has a presence in each district and assembly constituency. There are around 130 IPAC members in Punjab, and 160 members in Uttar Pradesh.
Uttar Pradesh is a huge challenge for Kishor, but it is also a state that he already knows logistically, having planned Modi’s 33 rallies there for the Lok Sabha elections. His task now is to do something exceptional that would catch the imagination of the people and make them vote for the Congress. The campaign here will focus on informing people about the party's legacy in the state. The past one month has been spent in developing strengths, from the booth level to the district level, and in deciding what work will be assigned to the frontal organisations and how IPAC will work with them. The effort is to plug the gaps in the extremely weak organisation and ensure that it works.
However, the coordination between IPAC and the Congress has not been totally smooth. Kishor is said to have raised the hackles of some leaders in Uttar Pradesh when he set up parameters for selection of candidates. It was construed as IPAC interfering in a purely intra-party activity. Kishor wants potential candidates to furnish the names of at least two workers from every booth in the constituency.
In Punjab, there was some friction between Kishor and Amarinder Singh, who publicly criticised the strategist, only to retract the statement later. But, Kishor reports only to the top Congress leadership and they are in sync with his ideas. However, when Kishor suggested that either Rahul or Priyanka should be the party’s chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh, the idea was nipped in the bud. “Initially, there are a few hiccups,” said Rishi Raj Singh. “But when the party members begin to see the benefits of the collaborative effort and surveys start looking positive, it gives a real boost to them.”
Congress leaders, too, admit that Kishor has brought more focus and a better sense of system into the party’s campaign. “Initially, there was some resistance. But since Prashant Kishor has come into the picture, things are moving in a more systematic manner. It is a case of new management techniques merging with practical politics,” said Pradeep Mathur, Congress legislature party leader in Uttar Pradesh.
The rivals, however, are not impressed. The Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab is confident of making gains owing to its outreach programme that began a year before the Congress launched its campaign. It feels that like in Delhi, the people are ready to vote for a third force in Punjab, having seen both the Akali and Congress dispensations.
“Amarinder Singh, by going to the people, is doing what political leaders are expected to do,” said AAP Punjab convener Sucha Singh Chhotepur. “However, it is too late for him. His image as someone who does not take anyone along is established, and Prashant Kishor will find it impossible to alter it.”
The BJP said that no new experiment could resuscitate the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. It described the decision to field Priyanka as a sign of desperation in the party. “It is now a sinking ship. And nothing can save it, not even Prashant Kishor,” said BJP national secretary Shrikant Sharma. He said Priyanka was not untouched by accusations of corruption. “How will they answer questions about [her husband] Robert Vadra, who is involved in land scams in Rajasthan and Haryana?” he asked.
Political opponents may doubt the difference that Kishor can make to Congress fortunes, but he has to succeed, at least to protect his own reputation as an election-winner.
To rid Captain Amarinder Singh of his “inaccessible and aloof” image, a series of interactions between him and voters, like 'Coffee with Captain' and 'Halke Vich Captain', have been initiated
Aim to divert attention from the Aam Aadmi Party by playing the insider vs outsider card
Around 40 members stay put in the central office in Chandigarh, and are involved in different campaigns such as social media, publicity and research
Total number of IPAC core team members 130
Around 80 members hit the road, taking the campaign to the people
Priyanka Vadra to be the face of the Congress campaign, moving from the family boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli to drum up support for the party in other constituencies
Sheila Dikshit as the chief minister candidate could reclaim the Brahmin vote
Total number of IPAC core team members 160
Around 60 members work from the central office in Lucknow
Another 100 members are spread across the state, moving from one constituency to another and carrying out surveys