Prashant Kishor has taken a significant turn in his career from an election strategist to political activist, but whether that will mark a significant turn in Indian politics too is something we will have to wait and see.
Updated 1 Jun 2022, 8:33 am
Prashant Kishor, who won great fame as an election strategist in the past eight years, has sprung a surprise on the nation: he would no longer be an election strategist but a ‘political activist’. That is a significant turn in his career, but whether that will mark a significant turn in Indian politics too is something we will have to wait and see. So far he has been a marketer of products; now he has become a product himself. Whether he will prove to be as good a marketer of himself as he has been of others is a question only the future can answer.
However, we can try and make some intelligent guesses. First, we have to judge whether the environment is favourable for him. Second, we have to judge his ability to exploit the environment.
He has descended in his new avatar in Bihar. He is not talking of transforming India. He is talking of transforming Bihar. Why Bihar? Bihar is at the bottom of all indices, he says. He wants to haul it out of the marshland. And also because it is his home state. He obviously thinks he can connect with Biharis more easily as a politician than he can with people in another state.
But is there space for him? Is there space for a new political party in Bihar? The space, as of now, is overcrowded. The three parties—the Janata Dal (United), the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal—occupy 99 percent of the political space. There have been minor parties in the corners—the Hindustani Awam Party, the Lok Janshakti Party, Vikassheel Insaan Party, Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen—but the they have mostly served as prey to the three major parties. Where will Kishor’s party get in?
There is a more fundamental thing to ponder for him. The three major parties were not founded in the air. They are organizations that have come out of movements. The RJD and JD(U) came out of the socialist movement. The BJP came out of the Hindutva movement. Though the Congress and the Left parties are on the margins in the state, they too came out of movements.
The minor parties mostly originated in the perceived grievances of a particular caste or religious community. The LJP and HAM drew sustenance from the support of sections of the Dalits, the VIP of the Mallahs, the RLSP of the Kushwahas and the AIMIM of the Muslims.
There are thus two models of political parties in Bihar—one based on movement, another on caste-specific mobilization. Which one will Prashant Kishor follow? Obviously not the caste-specific one. For, his mission is to bring prosperity to Bihar, not to his caste. Also, not going for the caste-specific model is his compulsion. Because he comes from a higher caste, and higher castes in Bihar have never encouraged caste-specific organizations in electoral politics. They have backed the Congress or the BJP and negotiated their issues invisibly with them.
Will Kishor follow the movement-based model? He has given no such indications. However, he has announced that he will start a 3000-km padyatra starting from the Gandhi Ashram in Champaran on the Mahatma’s birthday to meet people in every nook and corner of Bihar. Being a great political salesman, he knows the value in public imagery of the association of his new political venture with the legacy of Gandhi. But a symbolic association alone would not win him much traction with the voters.
Every political party swears by the legacy of Gandhi but does not go beyond symbolism in public demonstration of that commitment. Kishor could make a difference if he works to build up a movement to achieve his aim—Jan Suraaj, People’s Good Governance—in Gandhi’s determined, unwavering, selfless, immune-to-suffering style.
Is he capable of doing that? As of today, the answer is no. Even if he were to announce he was going to lead a movement for good governance, the masses might not be tempted to join him, for nobody knows what his ideology is. Is he a Gandhian? Is he a Socialist? Is he a Marxist? Does he subscribe to the Congress ideology? Is he a Hindu nationalist?
Once or twice in interviews he has said ideologically he considers himself “closer to the centre-left”. But he has never explained his political ideas beyond that. His history suggests he does not have a clear political line. When he was JD(U) vice president, he said in an interview that he had joined the party because he felt ‘connected’ to its ideology. He praised Nitish Kumar, the chief ideologue of the party and the Chief Minister of Bihar, to no end. He even worked for two years to recruit youth to the JD(U). Then a few weeks ago, he nearly joined the Congress. Where does he belong in the world of systems of political ideas?
Not that leaders who belonged to no established political ideology have not led mass movements. Jayaprakash Narayan led the 1974 movement. Anna Hazare led the anti-corruption movement. But they had their own political ideologies. Prashant Kishor has neither their stature nor any ideology.
All he has is his big stature as an election strategist. And that can prove more of a liability than an asset to him unless he does two things. One, he has to present himself as a man with a clear ideology. Then people will find it easier to politically place him and support him or oppose him. Two, he has to build up a mass campaign to build up a mass base. The AAP came up that way, and so had the All Assam Students Union.
Bihar has been a laboratory of mass movements and political ideas. If Prashant Kishor takes the route of mass movement, he could hope to start winning room in the crowded political space in Bihar. But if he takes the election route, beguiled by his illusion that he knows the magic formula for winning elections, we should be getting ready with an epitaph like, “Here lies the man who won elections and lost them.”