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Prashant Kishor: The X-Factor in Bengal Politics Holding Sway Over TMC Poll Campaign

In the coming assembly elections, the battle for Bengal may be between Modi and Mamata, but is also between Amit Shah and Prashant Kishor.

Kolkata: On Friday, after Trinamool Congress (TMC) veteran Dinesh Trivedi announced his resignation from the Rajya Sabha in a surprise move, he echoed what a number of TMC defectors have said before joining the Bharatiya Janata Party in recent months – that the party was no longer under Mamata Banerjee’s control and that it had been taken over by a corporate agency.

He did not name poll strategist Prashant Kishor or his agency, the Indian Political Action Committee, or I-PAC, but the message was clear – for a number of disgruntled TMC leaders had earlier cited the same issue, including Barrackpore MLA Silbhadra Dutta and Cooch Behar South MLA Mihir Goswami among others, as the reason for leaving their party.

The TMC has rubbished these charges, saying they were nothing but lame excuses in an attempt to make a scapegoat out of Kishor, who has been guiding the state’s ruling party on policy, strategy and organisational matters since June 2019 to help recover lost ground.

Also read: Scores of TMC Leaders Express Resentment Against Prashant Kishore and His Team

Nevertheless, Kishor has emerged as one of the principal talking points in the state’s political sphere – be it with the moves he suggestedfor  the TMC to turn the game around, or the attacks targeted at him by disgruntled leaders.

‘PK’: A new phenomenon in Indian politics

“Amit Shah is the principal of the college of which Prashant Kishor is a student,” BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya said on June 8, 2019, two days after Kishor, accompanied by Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, met the Bengal chief minister at the state secretariat.

There is a belief within BJP circles that it was due to a falling out with Shah that Kishor left the  Narendra Modi camp after managing and strategising his campaign for the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections and 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

File photo of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

From being a public health expert with mastery over building public opinion working for UNICEF in Africa to joining Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s team in December 2011 as an advisor and managing his prime ministerial campaign during 2013-14, to taking up the task of helping Mamata Banerjee save her regime against the onslaught of the Modi-Shah-led BJP campaign, Prashant Kishor’s decade old journey in India has marked a special episode in Indian politics.

Commonly referred to as ‘PK’ in Bengal, Kishor has emerged as India’s most-sought-after political strategist. Having run successful campaigns with Nitish Kumar’s Janta Dal (United) in 2015 in Bihar, with the Congress in Punjab in 2017, Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress in Andhra in 2019 and with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party in Delhi in 2020, he is seen as someone who has no political affiliation and provides professional services to political parties.  The Uttar Pradesh campaign for the Congress in 2017 remains his only failure so far.

In 2021, if the battle for Bengal is at one level between Modi and Mamata, at another level, it is between Shah and Kishor. While, according to the BJP’s Bengal unit leaders, Shah is leading the BJP’s Bengal campaign – instead of the party’s national president J. P. Nadda – Kishor is not only managing the TMC’s campaign, devising strategies and giving advice on government policies, but his team is also playing a key role in the TMC’s organisational changes.

One of Prashant Kishor’s recent tweets revealed how high his stakes have become in the Bengal elections. Though he had previously made electoral predictions, such as his client Jaganmohan Reddy’s impending victory in the Andhra Pradesh elections, never had he made a prediction so specific as he did last December:

The BJP was quick to respond, with Vijayvargiya saying that India would be a better place with one political analyst less. The BJP has set a target of winning more than 200 seats while 147 seats make the majority mark. The TMC in 2016 won 211 seats.

Kishor responded to this jibe by asking if BJP leaders would quit politics if he was proved to be right.

So, what exactly are Kishor and his team doing for the TMC to ensure a third consecutive term for Mamata Banerjee at the helm of Bengal’s affairs?

Bengal’s tryst with ‘PK’

I-PAC’s role in the TMC’s organisational matters has had myriad effects. On the one hand, it has provided the party with oxygen by infusing energy, while on the other – though unforeseen and uncalled for – it has brought out the grievances of a section of TMC leaders regarding the party.

People associated with his organisation said, requesting anonymity, that in no other campaign has he or his team become so involved with the political party concerned as with the TMC in Bengal.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during a rally ahead of West Bengal Assembly polls 2021, at Bolpur in Birbhum district of West Bengal, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. Photo: PTI

“In Gujarat, Kishor worked out of an office at the chief minister’s residence and the same was with Nitish Kumar in Bihar. But in those cases, organisational changes, especially at the district or grassroots level, had nothing to do with his organisation. He devised strategies, advised on policies and formulated campaign plans. Even in the JD(U), with which he became so involved that Nitish Kumar made him national vice-president, his organisation had no role in the party’s day-to-day activities,” said a person who has worked with I-PAC.

Also read: As Bengal Elections Approach, Digital Media Fills Up with Propaganda Camouflaged as News

According to another person associated with I-PAC, nearly 2,400 young men and women are working in various locations and on different aspects across the state in association with Kishor’s organisation.

In the TMC, Kishor’s team had its role even in the block level organisational changes that the party carried out during July, August and September last year. There are 343 administrative blocks in the state.

The changes in block, district and state-level leadership was part of the TMC’s plan to prepare the orgnisation for the 2021 assembly elections. Before making these changes, the party sought inputs from I-PAC on the activities and public image of local leaders, based on which the decisions were made.

As a result, those who found themselves in an unfavourable situation following the organisational changes held Kishor’s team responsible, and several leaders in different districts publicly spoke out against Kishor’s team’s interventions.

According to several district-level leaders of the TMC, at least two to three persons associated with I-PAC are active in each of the state’s 294 Assembly seats, making area-wise assessments of governance issues and public image of the party’s leaders, while keeping a tab on the state of infighting.

“They assess on their own and give us their suggestions. They advise on visiting particular areas, addressing certain issues and often designs programmes for us. They also supply us with social media content. For the likes of us who are savvy in social media management, they supply the contents to be shared. For MLAs and MPs who are novices on social media, they also handle their social media accounts,” said a TMC MLA who did not want to be identified.

One of I-PAC’s major roles has been in strengthening the party’s social media presence, the MLA said.

By and large, the role of I-PAC has been that of being the eyes and ears of the party’s top leadership. This watchdog role has been beneficial for the party, according to a veteran Rajya Sabha MP, who said that with the help of I-PAC, the TMC has managed to bring a certain discipline in the party’s organisation, a quality which it lacked, true to the Congress tradition.

Apart from teams at the assembly-level, there are teams working at the district-level and the state level. These teams identified grassroots level leaders from opposition parties – the Left and the Congress – with a good public image for drawing them into the TMC fold. Besides, they met socially-influential non-political persons to get them to join the TMC.

They also looked for the BJP’s grassroots level organisers who were unhappy with TMC leaders bagging important portfolios after joining the BJP. Over the past few months, the TMC has managed to attract several block and district-level leaders of the BJP to their fold in the districts of Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore and Burdwan.

The I-PAC teams made community-specific surveys among the Rajbansis of Cooch Behar, Gorkhas of Darjeeling and the tribal population spread mostly in the state’s southwestern and northern corners, and met influential leaders from these communities, trying to win them over. TMC insiders say that getting fugitive Gorkha leader Bimal Gurung from the fold of the BJP to that of the TMC was a result of Kishor’s plan and efforts.

Managing a makeover

Kishor started impressing the TMC leadership soon after teaming up, first with the public outreach programme named ‘Didi-ke Bolo’, or tell Didi, as Mamata Banerjee is popularly known – this  was a campaign in which people could use a phone number and email id to complain about anything and everything –  and then with the assembly by-election success in November 2019.

Summing up Kishor’s important contributions to the TMC, a senior minister said that the Didi-ke Bolo campaign helped the party and government realise where things were going wrong and what was required to be done. Besides, a part of the campaign had made it mandatory for leaders to pay a visit to certain areas chosen by I-PAC’s team, distributing contact details of the Didi-ke Bolo helpline and listening to the local people’s grievances.

TMC’s chief Mamata Banerjee and BJP’s Bengal chief Dilip Ghosh. Photos: PTI

“A good number of policy decisions were made on the basis of inputs received from the Didi-ke Bolo helpline. These include starting monthly allowances for elderly people from the backward classes, and later also for people from the economically weaker section among the general castes, extending the benefits of the Swastha Sathi health insurance scheme to everyone and allowing the Centre’s PM Kisan scheme to be implemented in the state despite that state having its own, similar scheme,” the minister said.

Also read: West Bengal’s Landscape Is Shifting from ‘Party Society’ to ‘Caste Politics’

He added that the government’s latest programme, Duarey Sarkar, or government at your door, is also a brainchild of Kishor. Through this campaign, multiple government departments are organising camps in different localities to solve pending issues on an urgent basis and enrol people under the various schemes they are entitled to benefit from.

“Kishor’s team has played an important role in improving administrative delivery,” said a veteran Lok Sabha MP of the TMC.

No senior TMC leader agreed to speak on the record on the role of I-PAC, arguing it was the party’s internal matter.

A young MLA said that the Didi-ke Bolo programme, launched in July 2019, got the party back on track after the demoralising Lok Sabha election results. “Grassroots level leaders had lost public contact and now they were forced to be amidst the people, shunning whatever arrogance they used to display. We could enter areas where people had angrily voted against us,” said the MLA.

In the November 2019 assembly by-elections for the seats of Kharagpur – which fell vacant because the local MLA, BJP’s state unit president Dilip Ghosh got elected to the Lok Sabha – and Kaliaganj and Karimpur, the BJP were clear favourites in Kharagpur and Kaliaganj because of the mammoth lead that they had over the TMC in the Lok Sabha elections held six months ago. However, the TMC won all three seats and the BJP’s Kharagpur defeat was considered a personal drubbing for Dilip Ghosh.

During the poll campaign, I-PAC’s teams in each constituency prepared the daily routine and the contents of the speeches of the candidates as well as other leaders who were part of the campaign. For the first time, the TMC released manifestos for by-elections. And each constituency had its own manifesto.

The glitch

The main discomfort in the TMC over the overwhelming influence of Kishor and his team concerns organisational changes, through which, a section of TMC leaders alleges, the hold of Abhishek Banerjee increased within the organisation.

A senior minister recalled that after the 2019 electoral debacle, Mamata Banerjee had realised that the BJP’s high-voltage campaign targeting her nephew had damaged the party and therefore she entrusted Abhishek with backroom work. That is when Abhishek brought Kishor to work with the TMC. Since then, as Mamata Banerjee focussed more on the government’s work, Abhishek was entrusted with dealing with Kishor. So, I-PAC has been working in coordination with Abhishek’s office.

“Through the recent organisational changes, based on Kishor’s teams’ reports, Abhishek’s grip strengthened on the party’s organisation across all districts and this irked a section of the party’s old-timers,” the minister said.

There are veteran leaders who have felt uncomfortable at “being tutored” by mostly young professionals lecturing them on how to win over people. Octogenarian TMC MLA Jatu Lahiri, who has been winning from Shibpur assembly seat since 1991 with the only defeat suffered in 2006, publicly expressed his disgust at being told what is to be done.

“I listened to them only once,” Lahiri said, “And thereafter acted in my own way.”

In November 2020, Hariharpara MLA Niyamat Sheikh had said from a public meeting, “Prashant Kishor will be responsible if the party suffers. They don’t know anything about the district and they are taking calls on organisational posts. Those who can’t win in their own booths are being given prime responsibilities.”

However, there are other TMC leaders who said the organisational changes were made based on reports of thorough surveys conducted by Kishor’s team at the grassroots level.

“The party decided to change faces – from the grassroots to the district level – because it became evident after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that the party suffered due to people’s anger against leaders in panchayat, municipality and district level. We wanted to bring relatively cleaner faces to the fore. Rebellion from those falling out of favour was expected,” said a TMC district unit president.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist and author based in Kolkata.