Terms of Trade | The Prashant Kishor saga: Can a consultant revive the Congress?
No consultant can help the party decide on what are three existential questions — its attitude towards Hindutva politics, the need for an internal assessment, and its core leadership. Its future depends more on how it deals with these questions rather than its engagement with a political strategist
After weeks of meetings which supposedly involved marathon presentations, poll-strategist Prashant Kishor has refused to join the Congress. In doing so, Kishor also hinted that the Congress’s problems require a thorough overhaul from within. “I declined the generous offer of #congress to join the party as part of the EAG & take responsibility for the elections. In my humble opinion, more than me the party needs leadership and collective will to fix the deep rooted structural problems through transformational reforms”, Kishor said on the microblogging platform Twitter.
HT reported that the deal fell through over four demands that Kishor made and were not acceptable to the party. That he would only report to party president Sonia Gandhi; his demand for use of data in the choice of candidates, which effectively meant a free hand; his view on alliances with regional parties; and his desire to focus on the parliamentary elections in 2024, not the state elections this year or next.
Had Kishor’s demands been accepted, would he have succeeded in reviving the fortunes of the Congress party? An even bigger question to ask is can a consultant revive the Congress party at all?
Elections, like other battles, are won or lost on a mix of strategy and tactics. The former revolves around the core politics or ideology of a party and the latter can include raising some issue or making some alliance for the elections or focusing on one particular community in candidate selection. The other crucial input in elections, like other battles, is the role of real-time intelligence.
What does a consultant like Kishor bring to the table on these fronts?
It is important to note that barring the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), all of Kishor’s electoral engagements have been at the state level. Except for the Congress campaigns in the 2017 Punjab elections, Kishor has only worked with regional parties at the state level, where the leadership and decision making authority is concentrated with one person.
At least in the medium term, most of India’s regional parties do not have a core politics which goes beyond capturing power. The Trinamool Congress (TMC), for example, was a part of the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, became a part of the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and is now against both the BJP and the Congress. Less than two years after winning Bihar with the help of Kishor and his team, the Janata Dal (United) broke ranks with its pre-poll ally, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar and went back to its old ally, the BJP.
The Congress does not have this luxury, even if it wants to practice such opportunism. It must oppose the BJP on a consistent basis to stay relevant. So there is little a consultant can offer here.
One area where Kishor brings useful and perhaps crucial wisdom to the table is on the question of real-time intelligence. Because most regional parties are personality-based and their organisational structures are driven more by sycophancy than democracy, it is very difficult for the leadership (or the supreme leader in most cases) to be aware of the actual sentiment on the ground, not just vis-à-vis candidates but also regarding issues. By deploying a technocratic-managerial model where information collectors are free of vested interests or where feedback can be collected by doing away with party intermediaries, Kishor has been helping parties get critical information that their own machinery would not have been able to get. In some cases, such information can be used to iron out differences in alliances as well. Projecting Nitish Kumar as the chief minister’s face in the 2015 Bihar campaign, lest the RJD’s past baggage makes voters apprehensive, was one such example.
Where does all this fit in with the task of reviving the Congress?
At the level of the states, the Congress’s political challenge can be classified into three kinds — states where it is the direct challenger to the BJP (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam), states where it is in an alliance with other major regional parties and challenges the BJP or its allies (Maharashtra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand etc.) and states where it is not in an alliance with dominant regional parties and not even considered a serious challenger to the BJP (Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Delhi etc).
It should be obvious that any national strategy which the Congress designs will have to account for these three broad varieties of state-wise challenges.
The Congress needs all the help it can get to win direct contest states against the BJP. This includes settling the question of leadership (it cost the Congress its government in Madhya Pradesh) or candidate selection (the factionalism between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot was more than obvious in the ticket distribution in the 2018 Rajasthan elections and the Congress seems to be having factional problems in Chhattisgarh as well).
These examples make it clear that while it will be useful for the party to have some external objective intelligence on things such as candidate selection or leadership face, the responsibility of implementing these decisions lies squarely on the shoulders of the national leadership. On this count, Kishor’s demands for single point reporting and adherence to his recommendations are justified in a way. A consultant cannot be held accountable when his suggestions are not implemented in the first place.
However, this is not all. Most states which will go to polls before the 2024 elections (Gujrat and Himachal in 2022 and Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in 2023) are under the first category. What is interesting is the fact that the Congress gave the BJP a big scare in the 2017 Gujarat elections and managed to win Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in 2018 without any help from a consultant like Kishor. However, its 2019 Lok Sabha performance in these states was much worse than its assembly performance. This speaks more about the lack of ability or appeal of the national leadership of the Congress than the organisational prowess of its state units.
Can a strategist like Kishor fix this problem?
Three questions are relevant here.
The Congress’s attitude towards the BJP’s Hindutva politics, the need for an objective assessment of the reasons for Congress’s long-term decline and the question of whether the national leadership and the regional leadership are on the same page regarding these two issues.
On the first question, the Congress has been displaying a split personality disorder of sorts. During elections, its leaders including the Gandhis indulge in optics such as temple visits, which is meant to appeal to the Hindu vote base. The Congress has not really attacked the BJP on core Hindutva issues such as Ram Temple, abrogation of Article 370 and the criminalisation of Triple Talaq. But the leadership, especially Rahul Gandhi is extremely shrill in his general rhetoric against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP. As is obvious, these strategies are mutually contradictory as the second allows the BJP to continue to brand the Congress as anti-Hindu and undoes any potential benefit from the first.
Let us come to the second question. The first structural headwinds to the Congress did not come from the forces of Hindutva. With the exception of the Left in Kerala (it saw the formation of the first anti-Congress government in 1957) and later Bengal, it mostly came from regional political formations which either rallied the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) or regional pride sentiment against the Congress which was both a party of upper castes and the national hegemon. The present-day Congress seems to have uncritically accepted both these streams of politics. Any value judgment notwithstanding, this has also meant that the party has lost traction among sections such as upper castes and its cultural appeal on nationalism in the Hindi belt. The Congress’s loss on this front has been the BJP’s gain. A useful counterfactual to ask is what would have been the results if the Congress fought the Uttar Pradesh elections from a purely upper-caste plank rather than a women-centric campaign? The idea might sound grossly politically incorrect to wokes, but realpolitik often goes beyond the realm of the politically correct.
No consultant can help the Congress decide on what are existential questions for its politics. This has to be part of the consultant’s original brief.
The third question, namely whether there is political synergy between the Congress’s top leadership (largely the Gandhi family) and others on what direction it should take on the first two questions, is the most important.
Rahul Gandhi himself has given indications (he wrote a letter after the 2019 debacle of the Congress) that the Congress rank and file often betrays him on ideological issues. If the top leadership and the rest of the organisational leadership are not on the same page, no matter what the decision, it will never be implemented. On this count, the best lesson the Gandhis can take is, ironical as it may sound, from within the family. Indira Gandhi led a split in the Congress party to steer it in a left-ward direction (and also capture power) even though she did not have a majority in the party organisation. The Congress (I) eventually triumphed over the old boys’ club which is often referred to as the syndicate.
Both the Gandhis and the dissidents (such as the G-23) have been avoiding a confrontation on the organisational issue. Perhaps, the former consider themselves indispensable (but do not want to actually create a precipitation around this question) and the latter do not have a willing challenger. This has not helped, because neither side is convinced by the reasons given by the other side for the tailspin India’s grand old party currently finds itself in and keeps blaming the other camp.
The fortunes of the Congress party will ultimately be decided on how it deals with these three questions. And it can start engaging with the first two questions only after the third question has been settled. So-called attempts to revive the party by creating empowered committees such as the one Kishor was expected to participate in, without dealing with these structural questions, are just delusions which are best captured by replacing the world conference with committee in a 1922 poem called Conference Crazy written the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The concluding line of the poem is worth reproducing here.
Oh, for just one more decisive conference,
the abolishment of all conferences!
Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.
The views expressed are personal