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Perils of Outsourcing Political Work to Election Strategy Firms

Shubham Sharma |
The elephant in the boardroom where election strategy firms meet with the top leaders of political outfits is the corporate funding of political parties.
Prashant Kishor

Image credit: The Indian Express

Prashant Kishor, aka PK, a seasoned poll strategist, helped the Bharatiya Janata Party storm to power in 2014 and was part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s core team. Before that, he helped Modi, who was chief minister at the time, in the 2011 Gujarat Assembly election campaign. They later parted ways, and Kishor helped other political parties trounce the BJP or its allies. 

The clientele for PK’s Indian Political Action Committee or I-PAC ranges from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi to the Stalin-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Bengal. The Indian National Congress, suffering its worst nightmare in politics, ideology, and organisation, made a last-ditch effort to sign up with I-PAC, but the plan now stands stalled. Now, PK has decided to travel across Bihar to “better understand the issues”, sparking speculation that he may launch or support a party in the state. 

The mode of operation of PK and I-PAC primarily entails working with big data, collating facts from the ground, measuring the popularity of the party or leader it has signed up and streamlining its campaign as and where it seems to nosedive. A modus operandi that I witnessed during the Bengal elections last year was the swift movement of PK’s men in constituencies and passing suggestions about the candidate to the high command directly, bypassing the local leadership, not to speak of people. 

I-PAC is named after the American Political Action Committees (PAC) but differs from them. The American Federation for Labour (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) started PACs between the 1940s and sixties to channel donations from organised labour to Democratic Party candidates in support of liberal-social and economic reforms. It was only later that the wealthy corporates took over the PAC system, especially after the Business Industrial Political Action Committee was formed in 1963. 

Business involvement in PACs allowed elections to be rigged in favour of incumbent congress members. As much as 60% of the money from PACs went to them. The result was that businesses and big money entered American politics, almost threatening the very basis of representative democracy. 

I-PAC does not perform this crucial function of a synergetic quid pro quo between business and government. It is perhaps because of the egregious electoral bonds scheme the government brought in in 2018 through which big corporate donors can donate vast sums of money to the political party of their choice and remain invisible from the public eye. 

However, organisations like I-PAC and individuals in PK’s mould have the capacity to rig Indian representative democracy in favour of parties with big money. Their fee is bound to be astronomical, an estimate of which can be found from the annual turnover of I-PAC. It stood at Rs. 1,032,170,361 (roughly Rs. 100 crores) in 2021, and the salaries of the three directors totalled Rs. 2.67 crores. 

Since most political parties raise most of their money from corporate donations, we can see an umbilical link between the corporate pluriverse and politics. It is not that such links did not exist before the rise of electoral strategising firms. The latter’s rise increased the magnitude of the involvement of moneybags in elections. The 2009 General Election cost some $2 billion, whereas the price tag for the 2014 elections was $5 billion. Unfortunately, there exists no data on the fees charged by I-PAC. Therefore, one should not begrudge wild estimates running into the hundreds of crores. 

India is a post-colonial democracy which took its freedom from the clutches of British imperialism through sustained mass movements. For political parties to side-step genuine mass movements and piggyback on corporate-style strategy firms cruelly undoes our glorious anti-colonial nationalist legacy. The year-long farmers’ movement was a genuine reminder that number-crunching and big data are poor substitutes for organic mass movements that arise from real concerns of the poor and marginalised. 

Secondly, the natural financial disparity between the incumbent party and those in the Opposition gets encashed when strategising firms are available to assist for huge payments. A party in Opposition loses out on the opportunity to employ similar methods for lack of money, and the incumbent party gets motivated to mooch the public dry by engaging in corrupt practices. 

Thirdly, corporate style strategising also brings the capitalist neo-liberal project to fruition. For the common person, who has already been atomised and alienated under neo-liberalism, elections are generally an opportunity to make maximum demands on the political parties jostling for their votes. The prospect seems lost because of pithy bylines and (un)witty bromides that election strategists coin. Politics seems to revolve around the banalities of Chai pe Charcha and Nitish Ka Nischay, which are flashed 24x7 on television screens, the internet, hoardings, and placards, closing the door for genuine demands and slogans raised by the masses. 

Fourthly, post-ideological political minimalism becomes the order of the day. Since electoral strategising by firms revolves around crude money, the ideological foundations of the polity take a back seat. Services are available for a communal BJP and those contesting it politically. Class-oriented demands such as raising the floor wage and ensuring a minimum Rs. 25,000 wage—a long-time demand of the Left and allied trade unions—are never suggested as possible programmes of action by the political outfits.
Indian politics would be better off sans money-making electoral strategising. 

No major social struggle in the history of the world was waged and won on the back of board-room strategising. Indians must act lest they forget that they are ‘citizens’ of the country and not ‘subjects’ of corporate style strategising. 2024 beckons for a series of mass movements against the divisive politics of communal hate and the neo-liberal juggernaut.

The author is an independent research scholar. The views are personal.

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