Politics

Watch | Prashant Kishor on What the COVID-19 And Lockdown Crises Will Mean for Indian Politics

India's foremost electoral strategist breaks down the political impact of the outbreak with Karan Thapar.

In the first analysis by the man widely considered India’s foremost electoral strategist, Prashant Kishor says the coronavirus crisis has increased the already existing levels of frustration and anger felt by India’s vulnerable and poor people for the system.

Kishor defined the system as not just the govt but the ruling establishment. Up until now the crisis has not affected the Prime Minister’s standing and many who have suffered will have appreciated his apology. Also, as in a situation of war, in a crisis like this there is an initial tendency to rally around the flag and government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will benefit from that.

However, things could change if the suffering increases both in terms of its economic cost and human cost.

In a 50-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Prashant Kishor, who is widely acknowledged as the electoral genius behind Modi’s 2014 campaign which first made him Prime Minister, said that if the economic damage, particularly loss of jobs and hunger, and deaths increase sharply it will definitely damage the BJP and the Prime Minister’s standing. In the end the buck will stop with Modi. Just as he will take the credit if all goes well, similarly the blame will be pinned on him if the outcome is the opposite.

Kishor said the same could be said of state governments. If the suffering increases, they too will be blamed. It’s not just the central government that will face the anger of the people.

Kishor also told The Wire that the central government was slow to react to the coronavirus crisis and was “still behind the curve.” He said the people at the very top, who he did not identify by name, did not seriously respond till the 20th of March.

Prashant Kishor said it was hard to tell what tens or hundreds of millions of daily wage workers, landless agricultural labour and unemployed unorganised sector workers felt about the BJP government and Modi. He was more certain that they will be angry with the system. Anger against the PM and BJP could depend on how severe the suffering becomes. However he made a point of saying that if the lockdown had been announced for seven days at a time, rather than 21 at one go, the poor and vulnerable would have been more confident of being able to withstand it and would not have begun walking back to their villages hundreds or thousands of miles away. If he had been asked this is the advice he would have given regarding the lockdown.

Prashant Kishor also criticised the government’s communication. He said press conferences were held by bureaucrats. If they were held by top ministers who were transparent and open it would give the country a higher level of confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis.

Speaking about the opposition parties, Prashant Kishor had three points of advice to give.

They must not oppose and criticise for the sake of criticising.

Second, on what he called “the right points” they should support the government.

Third and most importantly they must go out to the grass roots and comfort and support people.

He categorically said there was no evidence he could find that this third element of his advice was being followed. Leaders were tweeting from the comforts of Delhi and Mumbai or state capitals but not going to the people to be with them.

Kishor said that whether the damage the BJP and Modi could suffer would affect their election chances was very difficult to say both because elections are four years away and this will also turn on the opposition’s ability to unite and find a face to take on the PM. But anything can happen, he added. Who knew in 1986 Rajiv Gandhi would lose three years later? Who could say in 1973 or 1975 Indira Gandhi would lose in 1977?

Kishor said his organisation IPAC had studied elections in over 5100 constituencies since Modi’s 2014 victory and BJP had only won around 1,500 while Congress had won approximately 1,040. The rest had been won by other parties or individuals. Therefore, whilst the BJP was the dominant party you cannot write off the others. This was his answer to a question when asked if he accepted India had entered a period, similar to 1947-77 when we had once again became a one-party democracy with the BJP as that party. The clear inference was that with proper planning the apparent dominance of the BJP, which at one point he called “hegemony”, can be overturned.

This interview is entirely about what impact the coronavirus crisis could have on India’s politics. A second interview with Prashant Kishor on his relationship with Narendra Modi and his opinion of him, how he sees his own future and the secret of his electoral strategy as well how he chooses the parties and politicians he works with will be put up on The Wire’s website soon.