In his first-ever interview after declaring that he has turned the page, shut the chapter of his life as a poll strategist and returned to his roots to find a new role for himself, the inimitable Prashant Kishor reveals that his new initiative—Jan Suraaj (good governance for the people)—could well be a precursor to taking the political plunge.
Kishor, 45, has created a buzz in Bihar, where he seeks to begin the Jan Suraaj campaign and probably his political stint. He critiques Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s record as a pro-development leader, saying that his tenure has made little change to the state’s rankings on developmental indices.
Kishor speaks at length about his discussions with the Congress that dealt with the party’s revival and his role in it. He says he never wanted an individual role, and forming a group to implement the recommendations was in fact his suggestion. He declined Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s invitation to join the party and the Empowered Action Group—formed to undertake reforms in the party—as he believes it is not aligned with the party’s constitution and may well have ended up as a recommendatory body. He also clarifies that Rahul Gandhi was as involved as he could be in the discussions.
Asked if becoming chief minister of Bihar was an aim over the next few years, he says he does not plan much in advance, believes in working to the best of his ability and leaving things to God. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. What is Jan Suraaj? What does it entail?
A. My tweet (posted on May 2, 2022) is self-explanatory. In the first two lines, I have tried to sum up the last 10 years of my journey. The second part of the tweet is about the future course. The keywords are issues and path. I have talked about going to the people who are the real masters in democracy, getting to know about their issues and the path to Jan Suraaj. Jan Suraaj is good governance that is by the people, of the people and for the people.
The third point is ‘Shuruaat Bihar Se’, which refers to the state where we want to make a start. It also means that it is not going to be limited to Bihar.
Q. Is this a precursor to forming a political outfit?
A. Frankly, I do not know. I have to go to the people. Only after spending weeks and months and probably a year, would I be able to tell what people expect me to do about their issues. The path to addressing those issues has to come from my interactions and engagements with the people on the ground. If it results in a party, so be it. But it is quite possible that it doesn’t result in [one].
Q. Do you have a future course of action in mind after the exercise of meeting the people is over?
A. No. I take one step at a time. What I had announced previously, on May 2, 2021, is that I would cease to do what I had been doing for the last 10 years and that by May 2, 2022, I would decide what I am going to do. At this stage, the clarity I have is that I am going to the people to understand the issues and the path and the possible way forward.
We are talking about a state the size of Bihar. We are talking about more than 130 million people. So I don’t know how much time it will take.
Q. So, what do we call you now? A political leader? A political activist?
A. You can call me a political activist. In my head, I had turned the page on May 2, 2021—on the results day of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu [elections]. But for the public at large, I continue to be the same person doing the same thing. And I don’t necessarily find fault with that because… in the last one year, I was not doing something defined and easily understandable to the vast majority…. Yes, you can call me a political activist. Maybe the nomenclature will also evolve.
Q. Why did you choose Bihar to begin this initiative? Was it because it is your home state?
A. No. When we wanted to do this, the first idea was to do it in some of the most under-developed parts of India. We realised that Bihar is one of the most under-developed states but politically a very, very awakened one. There can’t be a bigger or better challenge than what it brings to the table, both in terms of politics and governance. Also, the fact that I am from here, one would like to believe that I would have a little bit more connect or understanding of the state than any other in India.
Q. Bihar continues to be the most backward state in the country. Who would you blame for this—the leaders and governments or the vast inequality in society?
A. Certainly, you can’t put the blame on the society in Bihar. It has got some of the brightest minds, some of the most enterprising and hardworking people here. So if there is something wrong, it has to be with the government and the system. Those who are looking at Bihar and the development or the lack of it have to look a bit long-term. Bihar has been under-performing compared with other states since 1967—a phase of political instability. Between 1967 until Lalu ji became chief minister , Bihar has seen more than 20 governments. So the unstable political phase could have played its part.
Then came the era of Lalu ji, which many would call the dark years for Bihar, though the supporters of Lalu ji would say that even though the development on some of the parameters might not be good or as people expected, they worked on social empowerment. Be as it is, that era did play its part in further pushing Bihar down the ranks on development.
The more intriguing part is the era which is seen to be when Bihar has been doing well, which is under Nitish Kumar’s government. Yes, during the Nitish Kumar government’s time, Bihar has seen some development, in terms of roads, electricity, etc. But if you look at hard data, Bihar, on a relative basis, remains one of the poorest and most deprived states of India. Bihar’s rank at the beginning of Nitish Kumar taking over as chief minister— which was the end of Lalu ji’s era—and what it is today, is the same. So Bihar was number 28 on per capita income in 2004, and unfortunately, it continues to be number 28 even today.
Q. Do you believe Nitish Kumar is overrated as a pro-development leader?
A. I am nobody to say whether he is overrated or not. What I am saying is when Bihar has been a relative under-performer for many years, probably decades, a kind of transformative growth and development that the state needs to make up for the lost time… is not to be seen, especially in the latter part of Nitish Kumar’s government.
Q. Is he getting distracted by the compulsions of running a coalition government?
A. As an outside observer, you can clearly divide Nitish Kumar’s regime into two parts. One is the first seven to eight years of the stable JD(U)-BJP alliance, when they were trying to do whatever was required on their part. Then came the second phase, post 2012 onwards, when there were some issues between the two coalition partners that led to both parties separating. Then Nitish ji ran a government on his own for a couple of years. A change of guard post 2014, a defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, and then he made a new formation with the Rashtriya Janata Dal before turning back to the BJP. So all this political upheaval would probably have taken a toll on governance.
Q. You did dip your feet in the political waters when you joined the JD(U). Why did that tie-up not work out?
A. The party’s stated position on the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens had been that it was opposed to it. But all of a sudden, the party voted in favour of it in Parliament. When I met the leadership of the JD(U), which at that time was Nitish Kumar, he assured me that even though the party has voted in favour of CAA-NRC, they are not going to implement it in Bihar. But that sounded a bit odd to me. If you are not convinced with it and if you do not want to do it in your state, why would you go and vote for it in Parliament? I went public criticising the party’s view. They decided to expel me. So good luck to them!
Q. A way of providing good governance is being in government. Are you looking at contesting elections?
A. Obviously. If we are in a democracy, and one is a political activist, if the situation so arises, there is no way to say that I will not be contesting an election. I do not see it on the immediate horizon. There is no election right now, where I have to take a decision whether I will fight or not. But as a possibility, yes.
Q. The announcement about Jan Suraaj comes after your discussions with the Congress to join the party and be a stakeholder in its revival. Was that Plan A for you as you made a career shift?
A. No. If you see the time gap between the decision with the Congress and the announcement here, it would tell you that I was always clear in my mind that I would be going to the people in Bihar. The Congress’s plan in many ways would have incorporated this as well if I were to agree to join the Congress.
Q. Why did you decline Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s invitation to join the party and be a part of the Empowered Action Group for 2024?
A. When we started the discussion about this idea or plan or blueprint, the only condition that I put on the table was that every aspect of the plan should be discussed and agreed upon before I formally join the party. And I must thank the Congress leadership. They followed it up with all sincerity and seriousness. For almost five days, literally the entire Congress top leadership or the group that the Congress president constituted sat and went over the plan in great detail. At the end of it, the group felt that most of what I was suggesting were issues they were comfortable taking forward. So on that aspect, there has been a complete alignment, both in terms of the approach and the actual outcome of it.
The difference, if any, was about how to execute the plan. The Congress leadership came up with this idea of having an Empowered Action Group or EAG, and they invited me to be a part of the EAG. On the face of it, there is no problem in being a part of the EAG and taking responsibility to execute the plan. The doubt in my mind was about the constitutional propriety and alignment of the EAG vis-a-vis the existing setup.
An EAG would be formed, as I understood, by an executive order of the Congress president, probably even validated or approved by the Congress Working Committee and would be made up of four or five people who would be nominated to the group. As per my understanding of the Congress’s constitution, there is no provision for a long-term existence of such groups, which are mandated to take such far-reaching decisions and operationalise them on a day-to-day basis. And when I looked at it and thought about it, I realised that many of the existing bodies and arms and positions that are there because of the party’s constitution would probably end up being at odds with what the EAG would be doing.
For example, one of the recommendations agreed upon was to revamp the Congress’s organisation in roughly 8,000 block and town committees. Now, to undertake such a big work, it could have taken two years for the EAG. The problem with the EAG is that it is not constitutionally backed or fully aligned with the existing organisational setup…. If the EAG were to appoint those block and town committees, what would be the role of, say, general secretary (organisation), who has the mandate to do this job as per the Congress’s constitution? So either the EAG would just become a recommending body, which would make the recommendation, and the general secretary (organisation) would execute it. Or, if the EAG starts appointing, then what would the general secretary (organisation) do?
I thought that it would lead to contradictions and push and pull. So I thought it would not be a very successful initiative, and that is why I declined it.
Q. Were you surprised with the decision to set up an EAG?
A. I was not surprised, because the idea was always that no one individual can take responsibility for the recommendations in the so-called blueprint. It was always to be a group. The only doubt was whether it has got the constitutional backing to allow it to carry out the work it is expected to do. But I might be wrong. PK or no PK, there is an EAG. If they are able to execute what has been agreed upon, good luck to them. I am happy to be proven wrong in my assessment.
Q. Did you take up your concerns with regards to the EAG with the Congress leadership?
A. They put the offer on the table. I shared the concerns that I am sharing with you. They did not make a counter-offer. And so we decided okay, let’s close this amicably and there are no hard feelings. This whole idea that one Prashant Kishor coming and changing things in the Congress anyway was, I think, a complete hype. No one individual can change things in a party as big as the Congress. I could have played one small little part in the whole scheme of things. And I am sure that the Congress has got many more people who are far more experienced and capable than I who can still do the job.
Q. It is said that you wanted a free hand, and that you wanted to be in a position where you would report directly to the Congress president.
A. Actually, it was my recommendation that it has to be a group because you don’t want to place such a big responsibility on one person’s head. So the whole idea that I wanted to do this individually versus being a part of a group has got no legs. The second part is the idea of reporting to the Congress president. As per the EAG announcement that they have made, the EAG would be reporting to the Congress president. So there is no issue on that as well.
Q. The Congress’s Randeep Surjewala, in his statement, said that you had been invited to be a part of the EAG with a defined responsibility. What was that responsibility?
A. This is very clear, that within the EAG, if there are five things to be done, you would have one or two or half or probably more than half of the responsibility. The word he used is ‘defined’, which is a fair description of what was put on the table. As part of the EAG, I would have had a defined responsibility, that is what the expectation was and what they have said is perfectly alright.
Q. Were changes in the leadership setup among your suggestions? Did you suggest that Rahul Gandhi should head the parliamentary party and either Sonia or Priyanka Gandhi be the Congress president?
A. The recommendations would encompass everything— leadership, alliance, ideological positioning, functioning and elections. Yes, it was suggested. But what was suggested and discussed privately, there is no way I can discuss it publicly. So if you are asking me about an individual and what suggestions were made about their future role, I would not be able to comment on it. But it is fair to assume that I would have discussed all those issues with the people who needed to know those suggestions.
Q. Can the Congress survive without the Gandhis at the helm?
A. That is for the party to decide. However, in the party with such a long legacy and history, a bulk of its existence has been with presidents who were non-Gandhis. So I don’t see a reason why the party cannot survive [with a non-Gandhi president]. But I am nobody to make a suggestion on whether they should have A or B as Congress president. It is for the party and its leaders to decide.
Q. Can the Congress offer any credible opposition to the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections in 2024, considering its poor record of winning elections in recent years?
A. Theoretically, the answer would be yes. But as you rightly said, if you look at the last 10 years, they haven’t done very well electorally and otherwise. And almost 100 per cent people would agree that the way they have gone about it in the last 10 years, with the same approach, it is very unlikely they are going to get very different results.
Q. What makes you so interested in seeing the Congress revive itself?
A. It is in the interest of the country and more importantly in the interest of our democracy that we have a strong opposition. Even die-hard supporters of the BJP would agree that having a strong, vibrant opposition is in the interest of the country.
Q. Do you find yourself in sync with the Congress ideologically?
A. Till the time I have not joined the party, the question of being in sync ideologically or not doesn’t arise. All I am saying is, yes, given the option I would have worked with them because as an individual I see that a strong Congress or a strong opposition is in the interest of our democracy and our nation.
Q. Did you approach the party with your proposals? Or, did they invite you to give suggestions?
A. This is frivolous because first of all, we had been in talks for years. The first discussion would have happened in the pre-Covid era. Then there was a much more structured, intense discussion post-Bengal [polls]. Then there was this round of discussion post the results of the elections in five states. The Congress is such a large party and I am a nobody. So if I went to them, I have no ego in accepting it. I don’t feel belittled by accepting or someone telling me that it was I who went to the Congress. So be it. What’s the big deal? I have never claimed that they came to me. If you feel happy about it as a Congress leader or supporter, fine, I went.
Q. How receptive was the Congress president to the suggestions?
A. Unless the Congress president would have been in agreement with what was suggested, she would not constitute a group of some of her most senior colleagues and spend that much time and energy in reviewing and engaging and interacting with something or somebody she is not in agreement with.
Q. The impression one got was that former Congress president Rahul Gandhi kept his distance from the meetings.
A. No, it is not true. He was as involved as he could have been. At least this is what my personal experience has been. Let’s not put the blame on an individual just because something has not worked out. Much before I met the Congress president in this round, I had met him twice or thrice. Even when we had this meeting with the Congress president, he was always there. It was only when a group was constituted to look at the proposals in much greater detail that he was not there. But that decision was also made jointly by everyone around the table. So now putting the blame on him or the so-called equation between him and me is a completely speculative thing. I don’t think he was withdrawn or not engaged or did not approve.
Q. In your tweet, you said the party needs leadership and collective will to fix the problems. Do you think that the party has a leadership problem and also lacks collective will?
A. You are reading a part of my tweet. What I said was more than me, more than Prashant Kishor or somebody like Prashant Kishor, they need leadership and collective will. I spoke about collective will because it is such a big party with more than a 100 years of history. Unless there is a collective will to bring about the changes that are required, it can never happen. It is not to say that they don’t have a leadership. I am saying that if they want to do something about the deep-rooted structural problems and undertake transformational reforms, it requires leadership and collective will.
Q. Through these meetings, were you able to bridge the trust deficit that existed on both sides?
A. I have been on record on this that post Bengal [polls] it didn’t work out because both them and I could not take the leap of faith. But post the results of these five state elections, I must say that they were very open and very supportive. I took the leap of faith as well from my side. Probably but for this small issue (concerns over EAG), it would have materialised.
Q. Some Congress leaders criticised your visit to Hyderabad during which a deal between the Telangana Rashtra Samithi and I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee) was sealed even as you were in discussions with the Congress.
A. That was not an issue and has been clarified by none less than Mr P. Chidambaram on record. And, the fact that the offer to me to join the Congress and to become a part of the EAG was made post my visit to Hyderabad. I have worked with different parties in the past, and the organisation that I used to work with continues to work with many parties. This is a fact that was always known to Congress leaders and its top leadership, and knowing all this, they had engaged [with] me. So it was not a new information as far as the Congress leadership was concerned, and they did not tell me directly or indirectly that this was an issue. To my mind, that was not a factor in the final outcome.
Q. Is the Congress chapter closed?
A. I don’t know. Right now, of course, it is closed in the sense that we have said, ‘Goodbye, Thank you’. But you never know what can happen in life. I am doing what I think I could and should be doing in Bihar. And, I am sure the Congress is doing what it thinks is the right thing for it to do.
Q. How do you define your relationship with I-PAC?
A. My role has been of a founder, a mentor. But I never held a position in I-PAC. But that is not to say that I was not involved in doing what I-PAC has been doing for the last 10 years. However, post Bengal [polls], I made a public announcement that I am letting it go, giving it to the colleagues to carry on and take it forward while I go out and think about what I want to do in life. In the interim period of one year before I decided, I see why people continued to link me with I-PAC because I was not doing anything else. I think it is undermining the calibre and contribution of the colleagues who are now running I-PAC because they are quite capable to run it on their own. If they need some help and if I am called in a meeting or an interaction, that’s fair. But I do not run I-PAC on a day-to-day basis.
Q. Did the I-PAC come up for discussion when you were in negotiations with the Congress?
A. Yes, it was brought up by a couple of people, and it was clarified to their satisfaction. They understood that I am a separate individual and I-PAC on its own is a separate entity. There could be some residual issue here or there which we would have liked to discuss if I would have joined the Congress. We would not have spent even 15 minutes discussing I-PAC.
Q. Had you joined the Congress, how would you have reconciled that with your association with leaders like Mamata Banerjee and K. Chandrashekar Rao?
A. If I would have joined the Congress, it goes without saying that I would have started working within the framework of what the party would have decided vis-a-vis each leader or party.
Q. How do you view the outcome of the assembly elections? Was it the semifinal before 2024?
A. First of all, the results were not a surprise to me. But it is not the semifinal. State elections are state elections, and general elections 2024 will be fought on issues very different from the issues on which the state elections have been fought in the respective states.
Q. It was also said that you wanted to be the facilitator of opposition unity.
A. It is a completely speculative thing to say that I am trying to cobble up some opposition to the BJP. That’s not my job. That is not something that I believe in. I meet a lot of leaders. In some cases, I wanted to meet them. In many cases, it would be they who wanted to meet me. But every time we meet somebody, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an agenda to bring them together or to work with them. Sometimes you meet people just out of curiosity. Sometimes you meet [for] a casual chitchat. Sometimes you meet out of social courtesy.
Q. In your view, in what form is the opposition expected to come together before 2024?
A. First of all, this idea of opposition unity must not be misunderstood [to believe that] a combined opposition is a stronger opposition. In many cases, a combined opposition actually weakens the case for the opposition. You have to go state by state and see if combining two or three or more parties against the BJP is going to be value accretive or counterproductive. The only success story in the recent past was in 2015, when the ‘Mahagathbandhan’ in Bihar defeated the BJP. After that, all such efforts, across states, have not got the result that the people would have expected. I don’t know if merely bringing together leaders and parties makes you strong enough or puts you in a position where you can defeat the BJP. Maybe in some cases it is required. But even in those states or those situations, unless you have a credible face or a narrative that the people can relate to, merely parties and leaders coming together is not going to give you results.
Q. There has also been talk of a Congress-less front or a third front.
A. I think this defies common sense. Where is the second front that we start talking about a third front? Right now, there is one front, which is the BJP-led NDA, and on the other side, there are a lot of parties—the United Progressive Alliance and some parties that are not aligned to the UPA. That is it. There is media imagination about a third front or a fifth front or a sixth front.
Q. What makes Prime Minister Narendra Modi such a formidable and popular leader?
A. You could write a book about what makes him popular. But if I have to single out one thing that makes him popular or formidable, it is his unique professional mix. If you examine his journey, he was a part of the sangh [parivar], working with society at the grassroots level. Then he [was] a political organiser when he was part of the BJP. And then he had [experience] as an administrator, first as chief minister and then as prime minister. When you put this together, you have [more than] 45 years of a unique professional mix that equips you to literally second guess what people want to hear. And that is a big strength.
Q. And, he seems to be invincible, without any challenge.
A. Nobody is invincible in democracy. Anyone who rules India with the kind of majority they have would appear much more stronger than they actually are. But that does not make him or anybody else in his position invincible. Democracy has its own ways of challenging the most invincible looking person or parties.
Q. Do you see a challenger coming up?
A. It is the beauty of democracy that you don’t see it coming. Those who were part of the era of Rajiv Gandhi would not have seen somebody called V.P. Singh coming. Those who were with Indira ji in the 1970s would not have seen JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] coming. These things are not something that you can see well in advance. But those who are smart or wise know that these things could happen so you would rather be cautious than complacent.
Q. Who among the leaders in the opposition camp like Rahul or Mamata or KCR or Arvind Kejriwal could emerge as a potential contender for the top job in 2024?
A. It is beyond my pay grade. It is for the people to decide who can be the prime contender or challenger.
Q. Can the BJP’s appeal that rests on hindutva and welfare schemes and nationalism be countered?
A. Yes, of course. The fact is hindutva plus hyper-nationalism and ‘labarthi’ or beneficiaries create a very formidable narrative in favour of the BJP. Despite this narrative, they are getting about 40 per cent votes. With the popularity and charisma of Mr Modi, the formidable organisational machinery of the BJP and supported by the sangh, plus this narrative, they are able to get 40 per cent votes. So that means that there are more people who are not convinced than those who are convinced. So theoretically speaking, yes, it is always possible because six out of ten people are not convinced. It is a different thing whether you are able to get a majority of those six who are not convinced.
Q. Why do seasoned politicians increasingly require election strategists? I-PAC has been the trailblazer and now we have so many similar organisations.
A. Twenty years ago if you had to construct your house, you would have done it your own way. Now, more and more people go to an architect. It is still your house, it is still going to be built to your liking and with your resources and you will occupy it. But you hire an architect. Why? Because he will probably help you organise the resources you have and the requirements you have in a slightly better way. Some of these individuals and organisations probably help organise the party’s resources in a way that probably adds value to their winnability.
Q. How much of a difference do these organisations make to the winnability?
A. Organisations or individuals like us are highly overrated. No individual or organisation can make a party win or lose. The victory or loss is always of the party or the leader or their programmes or their connect with their masses.
Q. You have described the last one decade as a rollercoaster ride. What has been the highest point for you in this period or the biggest disappointment?
A. I will not be able to pinpoint. To the outside world, it looked successful. But personally for me, it has been a rollercoaster ride full of ups and downs. There have been moments of excitement, moments of deep distress and anxiety, moments of success and moments of failure.
Q. Which election would you describe as your toughest and hence the most satisfying?
A. The toughest election was defeating the Aam Aadmi Party in Punjab in 2017. West Bengal appears to many as the toughest because it was hyped up that much, because it was against the formidable electoral machinery of the
Q. Since you are returning to your roots, I have to ask you about your growing up years and your family.
A. I come from a simple, middle-class family. My father was a doctor working in the government of Bihar. I have studied here. We are four siblings. All of us are settled. I am married to a lady from Assam. She is a doctor. We have a son. And I live more nights in Delhi than in any other place, because that is where my wife and son live.
Q. What are your interests other than politics?
A. May be a bit of sports and spending time with my son and family.
Q. Is it true that you do not watch TV or read newspapers and that you do not have a laptop?
A. Everything comes to you digitally. Sitting in front of the television and watching news or for that matter any other thing is not part of my routine, similarly with the newspapers. There are people who start their day with it. It is not to say that if I find a newspaper I will not take a look at it.
Q. And, no laptop for a person who is seen as a number-cruncher?
A. For me, there is a team that works. Personally, I have not used it. After 2013, I have not run a spreadsheet or worked on a laptop. There are people who are working with me who use laptops 24x7. I do not have a laptop myself.
Q. Is it true that you got offers from filmmakers for a biopic on your life?
A. Yes. Strange things keep happening—people coming to you who want to write about you or make movies. That is fine. You have to politely say no to them. I don’t think there is much to offer or to say, at least not at this stage.
Q. Where do you see yourself in five years?
A. I wish I knew. If you would have asked me five years ago where I would be, I would not have been able to tell you. And if I would have told you, I would have been proved wrong. Wherever life takes me.
Q. May be as chief minister of Bihar?
A. These are very lofty goals. You have to live a day at a time. I do not plan much in advance. Whatever needs to be done on a daily basis, we are doing it to the best of our abilities and then we leave things to God or nature and see how it turns out.