In Borgen, the Danish TV drama about politics, there is a pivotal scene: during a debate among various contenders for the Prime Minister’s chair, the main character, Birgitte Nyborg, goes off script. She talks of how she has struggled with scripted responses crafted by her spin doctors to questions about the complicated challenges of the multi-ethnic society that Denmark has become. Her from-the-heart talk surprises many, and on polling day leaves her Moderate party as the single largest, when earlier nobody had fancied its chances. In essence, she hits what many communications professionals call the sweet spot, managing to put across her complex point of view in a way that is relatable to the voter.
That is the spot every political party aims at, with slogans, catch phrases, policy announcements, promises of freebies, etc.
Courting the Congress
It is in the pursuit of that very sweet spot that leaders of the Congress, India’s grand old party, this month sat through, in full public glare, a series of presentations made by poll strategist Prashant Kishor. This came after a drubbing in the recent Assembly elections reinforced questions about the party’s capacity to revive itself after its losses starting from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
This is not the first time that the Congress is looking at consultants and lateral entries; neither is it the first time that the party will be attempting to work with Mr. Kishor. He handled campaigns for the 2017 polls in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab, but parted ways after Mr. Kishor felt he was not given much credit for victory in Punjab then, and received altogether too much of the blame for the losses in UP and Uttarakhand .
What is new this time around is not that the Congress is casting about for outside talent for help, but the fact that Mr. Kishor is aiming to join the party, and have his strategic interventions go far beyond campaign strategies to what is considered the domain of the party organization: candidate selection. Mr. Kishor has worked in this wider ambit for other parties, including the Janata Dal (U) in 2015, the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) in 2019, the Aam Aadmi Party in 2020, and the DMK and the Trinamool Congress in 2021. In fact, he even did so in 2017 for Amarinder Singh in Punjab, but he was on the Congress leader’s behalf and not at the party’s behest.
A longer timeline
Prashant Kishor, and his then organization, Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), burst on the political scene as an adjunct to Narendra Modi’s juggernaut-like campaign for the 2014 parliamentary elections, that took the BJP to a full majority in Lok Sabha. It captured the popular imagination but political consulting has a longer history in India.
One of the early entries of professional spin doctors and consulting, albeit relating to piecemeal aspects of a party’s electoral campaign, started with the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. His “My Heart Beats for India” campaign in 1989, designed by Rediffusion, may have had patchy success, but was the first ‘blow’ in ‘professionalising’ the space. Gandhi had also taken in lateral talents like Sam Pitroda, but again sectorally.
In the late 1990s, under then Congress president Sitaram Kesri and his vice-president Jitendra Prasada, the party hired a public relations firm, in much the same way as today’s Congress, to point out what was wrong and what could be done. The PR firm’s report, ending the then leadership of the party as jaded, got leaked to newspapers, causing an uproar within. It was not just the leadership that the PR firm identified, there was also an inquiry into the choice of snacks served at briefings at the Congress office. That report was buried, but soon Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress president.
In fact, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it became routine for advertising agencies, media buyers and spin doctors to pitch for advertising contracts to the BJP and the Congress before elections. Political parties began paying greater attention to data gathering and analysis, psephology, and surveys. For instance, GVL Narasimha Rao, currently a Rajya Sabha MP belonging to the BJP, started out as a psephologist.
The Kishor variation
The Prashant Kishor kind of all-on-a-platter set of electoral services began in 2013 in the run-up to the 2014 general elections when he associated himself with the Modi campaign, and came to include innovations like “Chai Pe Charcha” ( conversations over tea) programs and holograms. The Modi campaign was virtually mounted parallel to the BJP’s organization, in fact.
Mr. Kishor thought he would be given an assignment after the new government was sworn in. But in a cadre-based party, now fully under the sway of Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah, who took over as BJP president following the victory, there was little space. As the story goes, with the campaign for 2014 winding up, Mr. Kishor asked Mr. Shah what he thought would happen after June, an oblique way of inquiring about his own future. Mr. Shah is supposed to have replied that after June, there came July. In any event, Mr. Kishor left the BJP fold soon after. Mr. Shah later went on to get the Association of Billion Minds (ABM) on board for the BJP. Sunil Kanugolu, a founding member of the ABM, is currently handling strategy for the Congress for Karnataka and Telangana.
Don’t blame the consultant
Old-timers view the advent of consultants and professional strategists with dread, fearing that it erodes a political party’s ideology and undermines grassroots political work. If that is so, then the consultant is not to blame. Political parties have, other than the cadre-based ones, become dynastic and closed systems of some families setting up an internal oligarchy. They run as internal courts, with loyalty trumping merit. The presence of loyalists may reassure the leaderships, it does not help parties win elections.
And that is the intersection at which political parties and external strategists meet, to hunt down the sweet spot of electoral validation, while keeping party equations intact. And that is where we are at in India’s electoral politics.