Jeans and t-shirts were his preferred attire when he worked with Narendra Modi on his election campaigns, first to win the Gujarat Assembly election in 2012 and later the general election in 2014. But these days visitors in Patna are more likely to find Prashant Kishor dressed in a spotless white kurta and pyjama. The choice reflects the eye for detail of the man at the helm of the campaign that is threatening to stop Modi's streak of electoral victories and upset poll pundits in Bihar.
It also speaks highly of how carefully the former public health specialist with the United Nations does his homework while adapting himself to his assignments. Jeans and t-shirt would not have worked in Bihar where he would not have been taken seriously by either 'volunteers' or by party leaders. The equally informal kurta-pyjama, however, lent him both gravitas when dealing with politicians while putting his young volunteers at ease at the same time.
In the acutely caste-conscious state, the fact that Kishor is a Brahmin has caused not a few eyebrows to rise. That's because the upper castes, especially the twice-born, are believed to be rooting en masse for the Bharatiya Janata Party. But Kishor is spearheading the campaigns of the two 'OBC' leaders, both Mandal votaries and champions of caste-based reservation, which the upper castes and the BJP have consistently opposed. And of course both Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar are leaders who are deemed to be 'villains' by a majority among the high castes and held to be responsible for everything that has failed to work in Bihar.
Their sense of betrayal is also heightened by the fact that Kishor's father, a doctor who retired from the state government, also hails from Buxur in Bihar. Deliberately or not, Kishor himself plays up the fact that he is in fact from Uttar Pradesh since his mother hails from Balia, also the home district of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. Bihar and Balia have had a symbiotic relationship with the latter supplying most of the musclemen, and private mine owners, to undivided Bihar's coal belt around Dhanbad, the 'coal town' where Kishor's father served for many years.
He is, not surprisingly, tired of explaining why he parted company with Modi and how he could work with BJP in 2014 and its rivals in 2015. Influenced by Barack Obama's use of the social media and communication strategies in his Presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, the 37 year-old former public health expert with the United Nations has appropriated the term 'ideological agnostic' to explain the contradiction. As consultant his expertise, he points out, lies in building a team to manage election campaigns professionally and his ideology-neutral services come at a price. As advisor and consultant he brings in a team of strategists, number crunchers, communication experts, media planners, appropriate technology, trainers and surveyors to help a campaign. Period.
The agnostic therefore can in future again work with BJP. And several people who have known him are convinced that he will be running Narendra Modi's re-election campaign in 2019. Kishor himself is disarming in admitting that he continues to have good relations with Narendra Modi. He is even more candid in saying that he parted with Modi because of BJP leaders belittling his contribution. "When two brothers fail to get along, it's better for one of them to leave," is what he is believed to have told Modi when it became clear that the party and the RSS were not convinced that Kishor and his team at 'Citizens for Accountable Governance' had played any significant role in BJP's victory in the general election.
The BJP national president Amit Shah, it seems, had argued that Modi was already a formidable brand and BJP was riding the crest of a wave and invested a lot of resources in the election. The RSS and BJP workers, he insisted, had worked hard on the ground; and while CAG and Kishor were force multipliers and helped with campaigns like 'Chai pe Charcha', the simultaneous projection of Modi's speeches by hologram etc., Shah believed their influence was at best peripheral.
That is also the reason why Shah and his team scoffed at Kishor's chances of succeeding in Bihar with Nitish Kumar. The Bihar chief minister had resigned in 2014 and seemed to have retired from public life. Jitan Ram Manjhi who he had installed as chief minister had become increasingly belligerent and ambitious and had veered away from him. He was truly down and out and possibility of an 'opportunistic' alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav, who he had helped install as chief minister in 1989-90 but who he had also opposed in later years, would be a 'delicious irony' that the BJP could exploit. It was a lost cause and the interloper would have mud on his face by the time the election got over, they predicted.
Indeed a commentator wrote in June this year "Why Prashant Kishor could fail in Bihar" and concluded by asserting confidently, " In Nitish Kumar, he would surely miss the maverick technology-lover idea machine that his last boss was."
With the election in Bihar reaching the home stretch, however, the sense of certainty in the BJP camp has begun to waver. While Shah himself camps in the state and half the union cabinet takes turns to campaign, there is grudging acceptance that Kishor has made a difference. His far less extravagant and resourceful campaign appeared to have cut through the clutter and matched the NDA's multi-pronged attacks.
"It has been an enriching experience," admits Kishor while acknowledging that the circumstances in Bihar were testing. The challenges were many and the most important was to manage with meagre resources. His use of red and yellow colours, more vibrant than the green and white used by Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar in the past, GPS enabled bicycles, deployment of women to campaign from door-to-door etc have already become talking points. The innovative strategies, many being tried for the first time, have kept rivals on their toes. Arguably the most striking of them has been the deployment of women to canvass for Nitish Kumar from door-to-door. Done exclusively by men in the past, these women have literally made inroads into homes, courtyards and the bedroom.
And Kishor appears to have ensured that the face of BJP's campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has been campaigning relentlessly in the state and often addressing two to four rallies on a single day and venturing into areas where no Prime Minister has ever ventured before, receives a 'fitting response' before the day is out. The media could no longer magnify one-sided messages of the PM but had to take into account the response as well. Elections in India, one suspects, will never be the same.
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