Opposition parties and leaders of all hues cosying up to election strategist Prashant Kishor reflects the growing sense among all non-BJP parties that the saffron party cannot be defeated in elections on programmatic or ideological lines.
Whether current speculation over his joining the Congress turn out to be correct or not, Kishor's engagement with Indian electoral politics is undeniably going to become further explicit.
I use the term 'electoral politics', because with Kishor around, one has to distinguish between governance and realpolitik. While the former is grounded in ideology, or at least policies and programmes – either of the party in government or its rivals – the latter is driven solely by the pursuit of power and desire to win elections.
This December will mark a decade of Kishor's presence in the Indian political and electoral theatre. For non-Left parties currently adversarial to the BJP, the occasion provides an opportunity to take stock of whether principles matter lesser now than before. Put another way, is their opposition to the BJP for ideological reasons, or just to safeguard a place for themselves under the sun?
In December 2011, Kishor became part of an initially loosely-intermeshed 'strategising-cum-publicising-cum-marketing' team that joined forces to 'sell' the 'idea of Modi' to Indians. Because these efforts succeeded, this year also marks 10 years since the persona of Modi, and what he stands for, became central in the Indian political discourse.
Kishor made his advent from a completely disconnected world of public health, a sector in which he reportedly made a mark as a United Nations-connected functionary. He did not join out of conviction that Modi was the man India needed, unlike many others who joined the bandwagon after being drawn by principles the Gujarat strongman stood for.
For Kishor, playing a leading role in Modi's campaign was an opportunity to demonstrate his skills. He hoped to acquire influence because of this. Kishor imagined he would become indispensable to Modi, and be part of the power structure if he could successfully catapult him into South Block.
It did not work out the way Kishor had scripted it. After victory, Modi handed Amit Shah the charge of rebuilding a virtually defunct (and unfavourable to him) party machinery. The latter had no intention of enabling Kishor to set up a parallel structure personally loyal to him and not answerable to Shah.
So far, except for his brief stint in the Janata Dal (United), Kishor has remained an 'outsider' in all elections that he has been involved with. But, if he formally joins the Congress party and is appointed to a 'position', he will be the first lateral entrant in the world of realpolitik.
Historically, people not born into a political world have risen up hierarchical ladders of political parties after joining either a front organisation or the party, or even by crossing over from others. Lateral (non-political) entrants existed even in Jawaharlal Nehru's government – John Matthai was first railways and then finance minister before 1950. But, their presence was limited to matters of governance. The trend continued, most famously with Manmohan Singh, who not just remained finance minister, but stayed back within the party, became a Sonia Gandhi loyalist who was eventually nominated the prime minister.
But Singh rarely encroached on the 'political terrain', except as 'show-piece', and remained focussed on governance and the implementation of some 'out-of-government' ideas that he was at times saddled with.
After his departure from the Modi camp in 2014, Kishor has played an increasingly political role, from getting the once-adversaries Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar to form an alliance for the 2015 assembly polls, to his latest stint with Mamata Banerjee. His activities will likely witness a considerable upsurge over the next three years (till 2024), regardless of whether he becomes a part of the Congress or stays an 'outsider'.
Publicity has been outsourced to professional agencies previously, most famously by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. Advertising agencies are a market necessity and political parties hiring such services is merely an admission of inadequate communication and publicity skills. It is perfectly understandable for one agency to mount a campaign for different parties, although not simultaneously for ethical reasons.
But, from 2011 onward, Kishor has done much more than manage communication and publicity for parties and leaders. He has acted as advisor, a position that presupposes a basic agreement on principles, programmes and world view of the leader or the party. Yet, Kishor has seamlessly moved from one 'client' party to another, advising on matters that are strictly political.
An advertising agency mounting a campaign for a party can remain ideologically agnostic. But, can an advisor or consultant on political strategising and programmatic positioning remain so? Political parties and leaders turning to Kishor, for whom winning elections is all that matters, is indicative of the demise of idealism in the opposition space.
In 2011, when Kishor joined Modi, the latter had a well-articulated viewpoint and represented an idea. Kishor's task was to play a role alongside others in making Indians believe that the time for that idea had come. He had no role in advising Modi on what he spoke, or deciding when he could be strident, and when it was necessary to strike a note of moderation.
Unlike Modi, other leaders engaged Kishor, either to create a political 'product' or to sharpen their visage. In the past seven years, barring the brief period before the Pulwama terror attack, the opposition has failed to position itself as a national level alternative.
In the three years that remain for the polls in 2024, one party, or a conglomerate of several, can pose themselves as a credible challenger, not by mere structural changes and forming alliances though. Instead, they can emerge as an alternative to Modi by first presenting to people an imaginative critique of this regime's policies. This has to be backed by a well-spelt plan of an alternate world view and showcase a vision for the future which is different from what Modi projects.
But, an enhanced and more influential role for Kishor would point to the hollowness of parties and its leaders; their inability to shed laziness and incapacity to act as robust and serious challengers to the incumbent.
Kishor and similar professionals certainly have a role to play, but solely as force multipliers. Parties banking on him to understand what 'product' will likely 'sell', and then 'becoming' that, will mean their acceptance of the BJP's terrain as being the reduced ideological area in the political playing field. It would only underscore their bankruptcy and the success of the Modi-BJP-RSS combine to push the political order further towards majoritarianism.
The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. The views are personal.