In three recent hotly contested elections, campaign strategist Prashant Kishor has found himself on the victorious side. In Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi, Kishor and his organisation Indian Political Action Committee worked for YSR Congress, Shiv Sena and Aam Aadmi Party, respectively.

Not long after the results in Delhi, he has emerged in Patna, launching a campaign that many believe might lead to his own entry into electoral politics.

Once a backroom aide who obsessed over his privacy, Kishor is getting used to being recognised in public. As he walked into the lobby of Delhi’s Taj Mansingh hotel for an interview with ET Magazine, a young man walked up, requesting a selfie. Kishor sat down with Sruthijith KK and Prerna Katiyar for a wide-ranging chat. Edited excerpts:

What worked for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and what went wrong for the BJP in Delhi?

To my mind, governments that deliver tangible benefits at the household level have an advantage in elections. We have seen this in the Lok Sabha polls with Ujjwala, Shauchalaya, Insurance and Jan Dhan, among others.

Once you have delivered at an individual level where people could directly correlate the benefit with a particular leader or a party, you are better positioned than your competitor. The same thing happened in Delhi. Delivery of benefits at household level — be it electricity, sewerage, education or health — was a huge advantage that Kejriwal had.

Second thing to my mind is, a positive campaign is more likely to work over a negative campaign. Unless you tell what your agenda is, people are not likely to buy your version.

I must admit that the BJP fought quite hard. They got 40% votes, so you can’t completely write them off. They did get to some extent what they had expected. The fight was much closer than what people were anticipating a few months back.

Kejriwal refused to engage with the BJP on Hindutva or other polarising themes. Is that something you would advise those contesting against the BJP?

Not really. I see it differently. To my mind, in a democracy, the voter gives you a job. He elects you to govern and he also elects you to play the role of the Opposition. They do not like it if you breach that brief. Delhi voters have elected Arvind Kejriwal to be the chief minister of Delhi. They have not elected him to be the principal Opposition of the country. To my mind, every leader must stick to the brief given by the voter.

For instance, on CAA-NRC, Mamatadi is taking a very strong line because CAA-NRC is a much bigger issue concerning people of West Bengal but the same Mamata is not taking a very strong line on Ram Mandir as it is not a very big issue for the people of Bengal.

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When faced with a negative campaign, those on the opposing side tend to lose their nerve and respond. Would you advise them to stick to their issues?

I am too small a person to advise anyone. I am not a big believer in negative campaign. Except for a small phase here and there where you need to expose your opponent, largely if you stick to your points, it works.


What is Prashant Kishor doing in Bihar?


First things first. Bihar under Nitish has progressed. It is a truth that in 15 years, on many counts, Bihar has progressed. But if I compare Bihar position vis-a-vis other states, it is still sabse pichhda rajya (most backward state), sabse garib (poorest state), sabse ashikshit (state with lowest literacy) and with the least asset ownership.

Has that situation changed in 15 years? Unfortunately, the data says, no. You are the last state in terms of per capita income, per capita power consumption, per capita vehicle ownership, urbanisation, education outcomes, health, law & order, agriculture, productivity, etc. When will Bihar be among the top 10 states? If that has to happen, does Bihar need faster growth or a model different from what is being followed?

With Baat Bihar Ki, are you throwing your own hat in the electoral arena?

No, I am not in any party nor am I running a political campaign. My agenda is not to make someone win or lose. My agenda is to first educate and engage the people of Bihar, primarily the youth. It is high time we aspire for something better than what we are. How to change this? To my mind, some of the people of Bihar are the brightest in the country.

Data tells you: 40% of India’s district magistrates are Bihari, the maximum number of students going to engineering colleges are from Bihar. We are second to none. Then why are we forced to be the last when it comes to social and economic development?

Some say you are backing Kanhaiya Kumar, some say you are going to launch AAP in Bihar and some say you will launch your own political outfit. Which of these are true?

It is all speculation. Right now with Baat Bihar Ki, I want to reach out to the people of Bihar. I am confident there will be enough people to back this. One crore people must join this forum. If they do so, then we will take a call. I am not interested in just winning and losing. This is what we do everywhere else. Bihar needs more transformational work and it needs to be done deeper and for the long term.

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What do you really do when you are engaged by a party?

I don’t have any magic bullet. When the institutional platform IPAC (Indian Political Action Committee) is on-boarded by a political party, their mandate is to do everything that is required for a party or a leader to win the elections. It is all-encompassing. So I diagnose what is needed — be it social media, messaging or communication. I do whatever it takes.

In Indian politics today, you have the unique place of having the ears of five or six chief ministers. What got you here and how will you use your influence?

First of all, I am not special. More important than having the ears of X number of chief ministers is to be able to contribute to the agenda as part of the campaign — the key policy framework that these leaders are outlining or implementing for their constituents.

That’s the takeaway from us. We think that once the elections are done, only those who are elected by the people and are under oath of the Constitution should take the front seat. We contribute a great deal in setting the agenda. If there is any influence that is the influence we have.

The rise of Prashant Kishor has also coincided with the electoral hegemony of the BJP in some sense. So many have also started seeing you as a common thread between disparate opposition parties in the states, perhaps even as a common factor that could unite parties against the BJP?

No, I do not see it that way. I am a very small guy. The BJP is such a big institution, such a large party. I am an individual working with a few professionals on a platform which is not even political.

Surely you underestimate yourself. You brought Lalu & Nitish together.

That was a tactical arrangement in an electoral battle.

The same thing can happen at the national level…

I don’t think I have that kind of reach, influence or desire. Our desire is for those who we decide to work with — to make them better prepared, make them more likeable to their electorate, make them win elections and deliver what they promise when they form the government. We want that.

You have been advising parties. Now once you yourself start having an interest in active electoral politics, do you fear that can become a hindrance to your effectiveness as an adviser?

First of all, I do not see myself as the media describes me: a political strategist, adviser or consultant. I am a political aide to the people I choose to work with. My political interest, for the time being and for years to come, will be limited to Bihar where I am not a political aide to any party or individual or combination of parties. But in any other state, I am not a politician or a political activist and wherever my mentored organisation IPAC gets to do some work, if they seek my assistance or participation, I will do it to that extent.

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What are the greatest misconceptions about Indian elections?

Well (the belief of ) any party or individual having a hegemony is the greatest misconception. If you look at the data, at national level, right from post-Independence days, not a single party has got more than 50% votes. That tells you that even at the peak of a party or leader, they are not able to get 50% people to vote for their agenda. That shows the diversity and the challenges you face as a party or leader to win in India.

In other words, you could have weak opposition parties but the Opposition is never weak here. Second thing is when we look at elections, we sometimes undermine voter wisdom. We make this mistake of thinking that certain states or societies are more caste-ridden because literacy level is low; (we assume) they are not as smart as the ‘urban educated class’.

Take the example of UP and Bihar. The biggest vote for Modi is coming from UP and Bihar. Most seasoned analysts say these states vote on caste basis. But if I ask them how many people from Modi’s caste live in UP and Bihar, the answer is close to zero.

Much has been made in the media of your rivalry with Amit Shah. What do you have to say to this?

I am too small a person. He is too big, too senior and too experienced to be compared with me. Forget about me, it is a great injustice to him. If I club my whole experience, all together, it will be not more than 6-7 years. While he has been in public domain as a senior leader for decades. I am just a small fry.

Of all the chief ministers you have worked with, who do you see as the fittest candidate for a national role?

I am not able to make that prediction. Extrapolating any chief minister as a potential PM candidate is a bit of a stretch. It is one thing to win a state and remain a very popular and powerful leader and it is a completely different thing to go on to win all of India.

But that’s exactly what Narendra Modi did.

Yes. But then, there is only one Mr Modi.





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