Backroom boy who changed the rules

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By Sankarshan Thakur
  • Published 9.11.15
Nitish Kumar with Prashant Kishor in Patna on Sunday. (PTI)

About the only thing he did not do in this campaign was to board a chopper and go from dais to dais addressing public meetings.

Every place else on the Mahagathbandhan's winner plot lies the footprint of Prashant Kishor, now surely accredited master of the election game. A doubly proven one-man political consultancy that few would now dare take lightly.

He left Prime Minister Narendra Modi's side shortly after his stunning 2014 victory, tainted and cast aside by Amit Shah. He resolved to make the Nitish Project his riposte to the BJP president. The ammunition Kishor gathered and positioned threw off Shah's siege on Bihar and packed him off licking wounds. This was as much a grudge match between Kishor and Shah as between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. "He seldom spoke about his deep sense of being humiliated and sidelined by Amit Shah after the 2014 victory," a close aide of Kishor told The Telegraph, "but to many of us it was evident he was working with quiet but steely determination to score this one against the stratagems of the BJP."

To those who worked closely with him - from well-heeled data crunchers to hard-boiled politicos - Kishor never once let his confidence down, not even when the Modi-Shah shop landed on Bihar with the might of its publicity and propaganda resources, and the Prime Minister's continued ability to electrify rally grounds. "To the very last he maintained that his base figure was 145, not a seat less. We suffered moments of doubt, he never ever did. He has proven to insider and outsider alike he is an entity to reckon with," the aide said.

When Kishor arrived to formally join the Nitish establishment this summer, very little was in place other than Nitish Kumar who had resumed as chief minister. Conventional wisdom afloat across Bihar was that the Modi team would do an encore, sweep Bihar. There was no strategy, no resources, no alliance. Kishor was, to begin with, an alliance-sceptic. He thought Lalu Prasad had an image liability, he believed Brand Nitish was strong enough a base to mount a winning campaign on.

That changed dramatically the day Modi addressed his first campaign rally at Muzaffarpur on July 25. The Prime Minister lashed out with equal belligerence at Nitish and Lalu Prasad; the message Kishor read in that double-barrel assault was that what really worried the BJP was the prospect of Nitish and Lalu Prasad coming together, that is why he was chiding Nitish was sidling up to Lalu Prasad, that is why he was jabbing jungle raj.

Kishor swiftly changed tack, turned to alliance espousal and put it on fast track. The Nitish-Lalu tandem was ready in a week, the Congress riding piggyback; its launch was a rousing rally at Patna's Gandhi Maidan on August 30. There on, almost overnight, rag-tag turned, against the run of play, into clockwork. Nitish and Lalu Prasad began to work with a unison that took even the two by surprise. Of the many things that Kishor deserves credit for, achieving cohesion at the top between Nitish and Lalu Prasad was probably the most critical. He cut through party factions and negotiated personally between them. He was seen by both leaders as an honest go-between with no axe to grind other than that which would strike at the BJP. Kishor carried no political or Bihari baggage. Although he did have divided loyalties - there was a mission to run for the Nitish-Lalu combine, there was a personal mission against Amit Shah to wage too. Fortunately for him, the means and ends of both converged.

What he privately calls the "breakout moment" of the campaign resulted from the trust he was able to conjure between Nitish and Lalu Prasad. That moment was the declaration of all 243 Mahagathbandhan candidates at one go by Nitish Kumar. That spoke of painstaking homework, deep compact between alliance partners, and killer timing. The BJP-led alliance was, at that time, way behind on the sharing and allocation of seats. "That one move took our rivals by surprise and inspired our own ranks no end," said a senior minister in the Nitish government. "We had come back from behind to lead the game."

Kishor has two trademark job conditions - a free working brief and proximity to his boss. He occupied the upper floor of the Modi residence in Gandhinagar; in Patna, he lived and worked off Nitish's Circular Road bungalow. One concession he did make to Nitish in return for the two he got - he forsook his jeans and tee and procured a set of white pyjama-kurtas for the duration of his assignment - a socialist rather than corporate appearance. Apparently, Nitish Kumar insisted, and ordered a tailor home to have Kishor newly kitted out.

On the campaign itself, Kishor was quick to dump horsecart socialism and proceed in unabashedly with latter day market tools and methods. He binned the traditional green of the JDU and the RJD and brought on flaming reds and yellows onto the banners - garish colours but closer to those preferred by the masses. He didn't bother with party symbols, at least to begin with, and made Nitish the emblem of his campaign - it was a dare to traditionalists but that is one of Kishor's patents: challenge convention, think out of the box. His bet was that the core theme of this campaign was Nitish - either Biharis wanted him over any other as chief minister, or they were ready to bid him goodbye.

But it was not a mindless splurge; Kishor did not have the resources at hand. Cleverly, he decided not to spend on television or print advertising; the BJP would have beaten the Mahagathbandhan hollow in that lane. He went, instead, for the cheaper and longer lasting option of the street. He crafted an audacious empire of billboards and banners across the state. Nitish was everywhere the eye went in Bihar.

But to call Kishor a backroom boy par excellence and leave it at that would mean to judge him below par. It isn't true he has been glued most hours to his chair and iPad/iPhone across from Nitish's office. He has taken breaks. He has slipped into the back of his sky blue SUV and run circles around the state. On the eve of each polling phase, Kishor was out in the field, ensuring personally that all was as he planned it, seeing to last-minute requirements, shaking his team up to check for slack or crack. "He has been indefatigable of energy," says Pavan Varma, JDU spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member. "He has been spinning like a top all through."

To effectively mind front and back, Kishor had a memory challenge to undertake - so many parties and candidates, such a boggling medley of caste and creed groups, so many complex combinations. His brain seems to have gone like a scanner on all of that.

He knows each of Bihar's 243 constituencies like the lines of his palm, down to details of which Independent candidate could potentially help or hurt who. Name a seat and Kishor would tell you which way it was going and why. The result has probably followed his script more closely than anybody else's. It helped that he had a hand-picked team of researchers and techies constantly feeding him; it also helped that he could constantly communicate with "friends" in the BJP from his days in the Modi backroom.

Kishor was always cat's paw close to his adversary's game plan. There were those who long suspected him to be a Modi mole in the Nitish tent; Kishor always knew the opposite to be true. Oftentimes during this long campaign, there were adverse leaks from his team members, but Kishor always had more plants on the other side to feed off.

He needs no more of it; he's got a plate much fuller than he expected or publicly claimed. Now's probably time to sit back and relish the look of it. Or probably no. What Kishor wants most is a break. The Bihar yoke has meant he's been mostly neglectful of his ailing mother, and wife and child back in Delhi. It has also meant he's not been able to pay attention to personal regime and regimen. What he wants most, aides say, is to get back his fitness. He'd better. The line of clients at his doorstep is getting longer by the minute.