Cong challenge for poll-star Prashant

An underplayed narrative of the Bihar election is beginning to echo from Delhi's power corridors. Taken by celebrity political strategist Prashant Kishor's back-to-back poll trophies, the Congress is wooing him to convert frequent dialogue into a firm relationship.

By Sankarshan Thakur
  • Published 15.11.15
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Chief minister Nitish Kumar with Prashant Kishor in Patna after the Grand Alliance victory in the elections last Sunday. (PTI)

New Delhi, Nov. 14: An underplayed narrative of the Bihar election is beginning to echo from Delhi's power corridors. Taken by celebrity political strategist Prashant Kishor's back-to-back poll trophies, the Congress is wooing him to convert frequent dialogue into a firm relationship.

Meetings Kishor had this week with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi were not his first; they aren't the last either. Until a fortnight ago, conversations between them - direct or indirect - chiefly concerned the ploys and strategies to win Bihar and deliver a setback to the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo. But since then, Congress sources tell The Telegraph, the Gandhi-Kishor talks - Priyanka too has been part of them on occasion - have become more frequent, and turned far broader in scope.

What could they be about? Strategising the crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly poll in 2017? Looking at what can be done in Bengal or how Assam can be retained? All of the above? Or is an even more long-term blueprint on the table?

Few would know, and those that do aren't saying a word. Those discussions are taking place within walls that don't admit flies. What can be said with fair certainty is that the Congress is very keen to have Kishor on board and there are enough signs a negotiation is under way.

There is a fair history to on-again-off-again discussions between Kishor and the Gandhis. As reported in The Telegraph in July, Kishor's professional familiarity with Rahul Gandhi pre-dates his decision to join the Narendra Modi project at Gandhinagar in 2011. There has been subsequent contact, but to little tangible outcome.

The current discussions were triggered by Bihar and the spectacular against-the-run-of-play victory of the JDU-RJD-Congress combine. Kishor, who played alliance sheet anchor front and back, emerged from the triumph doubly certified as a strategist to reckon with. Influential Congress leaders have been quick to look back, assess the role of Kishor before and during the campaign and recognise his uses. They reckon they could well do with a man of his qualities. The Congress may have good reason to be grateful to Kishor for what he has already achieved for them in Bihar.

To begin with, it was Kishor that lobbied hard to persuade the Congress leadership on key alliance issues before the Bihar campaign got under way - align strongly with Nitish Kumar, project him as chosen leader of the alliance on account of his pro-governance image, push Lalu Prasad to accept Nitish's leadership. Nitish and Lalu were bitter, uneasy allies, the Congress had to play both buffer and builder if a credible alliance were to be put in place. The Congress, Sonia Gandhi in particular, moved swiftly to ensure that. Lalu took some persuading, but what nudge and shove was required was effected by the Congress. Sources in the victorious Bihar alliance suggest that, if only for the purposes of the Assembly election, contact between Kishor and top Congress leaders had been uninterrupted in recent months. If they now appear excited and eager to get Kishor on board, it is not only because he has steered a winner campaign, it is also because the Congress has come up trumps, grabbing an unforeseen 27 of the 41 seats it was given to contest.

The Congress was widely thought to have been ceded an exaggerated number of seats in Bihar, far above their weight class in Bihar. Congress leaders seem pleased beyond measure they've returned the best strike rate in the Mahagathbandhan. The perception in the Congress - and indeed the JDU and RJD - is that Kishor played honest broker and messenger between partners.

That may owe essentially to how Kishor himself sees and structures his role - not a partisan politicker between parties and personalities, but as portfolio holder entrusted to fetch profit for clients. Kishor's shift from Modi to arch-rival Nitish earlier this year provoked fair amount of remark, a lot of it sceptical and adverse. How could a man jump fences between adversaries, espouse one idea today, quite the opposite one another? The plain - and to many disagreeable - truth may be that Kishor's conduct and practices are ideology-agnostic. Political parties or their credos don't drive or excite him, clients do. His adrenalin flows from imagining and effecting ways of pushing his brief successfully. The contrarian assignments he has taken in 2014 and 2015 - and made a success of - are probably proof.

The Bihar project done, Kishor has become hotly pursued, by Mamata Banerjee and a few others, but chiefly by the Congress. But is it going to be as simple as changing briefs and clients, can Kishor and the Congress work together? On paper, the Congress may look to Kishor and his already-fabled strategies to pull it out of the deep ditch, perhaps even put a new complexion on Rahul. Kishor, on his part, may relish the upscaled challenge, an opportunity to conquer even greater heights in the political consultancy business, attempt to create history and become living myth.

That isn't as easily achieved; both sides are probably aware a fruitful relationship doesn't come merely from needing or wishing it. Kishor's desk style demands almost free-hand operating licence and unfettered doorstep access to his chosen boss. The Congress is an unwieldy behemoth, ridden with entrenched power lobbies, overrun by vying palace gatekeepers. It is very unlike the two dispensations he has recently served - both Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar were able to act flexibly and afford Kishor home proximity and blanket trust. India's grand old party is quite another neck of the woods. But Kishor may yet feel entitled to venture into that tricky wilderness; he has, after all, just finished a flying apprenticeship in the land of "jungle raj".