POLITICS

Can Prashant Kishor Change The Way The Congress Party Functions?

His methods are affecting the party in all areas, from factionalism to ticket distribution.

24/07/2016 8:11 AM IST | Updated 24/07/2016 9:34 AM IST
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Anindito Mukherje /Reuters
File photo of Prashant Kishor, political strategist of the Congress party.

Sheila Dikshit's three-day bus tour of Uttar Pradesh, marking the launch of the Congress campaign in the state, was very unusual for the party. The Congress is not known to launch its campaigns as early as six months in advance. Its election strategies usually mean very little other than ticket distribution and Rahul Gandhi's rallies. Declaring a chief ministerial candidate is rare first.

The campaign has the imprint of Prashant Kishor, its strategist who heads the Indian Political Action Committee, or I-PAC. The Congress campaign theme, "27 Saal, UP Behaal", had become clear months ago, with the launch of a Facebook page of the name.

It's taken Kishor time to convince a slow and indecisive Congress party to do things his way, but now that the party has given in, Kishor may well be changing how the Congress functions.

Convincing Priyanka Gandhi that this is the right time for her to enter active politics also goes to Kishor's credit. Senior Congress leaders and even Congress president Sonia Gandhi were said to be wary if this was the right time for Priyanka to make her entry.

For now, Kishor seems to have got everything he wanted: his own team of Congressmen in both Uttar Pradesh and Punjab being the surest sign. When the party was dragging his feet over replacing Madhusudan Mistry (AICC general secretary for Uttar Pradesh), Nirmal Khatri (UP Congress chief) and Shakeel Ahmed (AICC general secretary for Punjab), Kishor had let it be known it would be his way or the highway.

The high command relented and agreed to make Ghulam Nabi Azad the general secretary for UP, Raj Babbar the state president and announce Sheila Dikshit as the CM candidate. By Kishor's standards, these decisions took too long in the coming, but six months is still enough time.

Kishor did hit a wall in Punjab, when the announcement of Kamal Nath as AICC general secretary for the state backfired due to Nath's association with the 1984 anti-Sikh violence. The replacement, Asha Kumari, came with its own share of controversy. The public spats with Captain Amarinder Singh may not have helped either. Yet, the campaign in Punjab is being conducted by Kishor's team, all centred around Amarinder Singh, challenging the Aam Aadmi Party to announce their CM candidate.

By far the most consequential change Kishor is bringing about -- with a lot of resistance, especially in Punjab -- is changing the method of ticket distribution. By instituting an objective criteria for ticket distribution, Kishor is eliminating the role of sycophancy and corruption in ticket distribution.

By instituting an objective criteria for ticket distribution, Kishor is eliminating the role of sycophancy and corruption in ticket distribution.

All ticket seekers have been asked to name one volunteer in each both of their constituency, which will not only ensure that only those with deep local networks get tickets, but also help revive the Congress party on the ground. This is especially important in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress' rout had made it difficult to find a Congress worker in villages.

Ticket seekers are also being heavily quizzed and studied by I-PAC, which led to enough resistance in Punjab that Amarinder Singh was forced to issue a press statement saying tickets would be allotted by Sonia Gandhi and him, not Kishor.

That's one sign that Kishor may still not have an easy ride with the faction-ridden Congress. In the case of Kishor's earlier campaigns, with Narendra Modi in 2014 and Nitish Kumar in 2013, Kishor was able to see quick implementation of his plans as those leaders didn't have to face factional pressures.

For one, the announcement of chief ministerial candidates in advance is an idea that is here to stay. With the announcement of Sheila Dikshit, a politician Kishor has long been a fan of, the Congress has managed to steer clear of various factions in the UP Congress. Like Dikshit, Raj Babbar also does not belong to the Rita Bahuguna faction or the Pramod Tiwari faction in UP.

While no one can argue that the announcement itself will change the Congress party's fortunes in Uttar Pradesh, there is no doubt that it has increased the pressure on the Bhartiya Janata Party to have a CM candidate in Uttar Pradesh. Most importantly, Kishor's idea of the UP campaign has improved the morale of the party workers in UP -- singularly the most important thing in an election.

In sharp contrast, the BJP in Uttar Pradesh is in a disarray, while the Congress is getting its act together. The new UP BJP chief, Keshav Prasad Maurya, called off the state executive meet two days before it was to be held, thanks to intense power tussle within the party. He has been struggling since April to announce his new team.

It is a role reversal to see the BJP battle internal dissidence and factionalism, whereas the Congress is able to overcome it. Identifying the crab culture of factionalism as the Congress' biggest bane, Kishor has sought to end it by replacing it with responsibilities and quantifiable tasks. The rewards would depend on the achievements. In Punjab, he has bridging the gap between Captain and his baiters within the party, albeit with limited success. More critically, he has made himself a bridge between Amarinder Singh and Rahul Gandhi, who enjoy a rocky relationship.

Having been given all that he wants, it is now for Kishor to deliver. He has promised a campaign that the "Congress has never seen". Almost every week beginning August, his team will role out a new module, trying to be one step ahead of the other three parties in setting the agenda for the campaign.

For now, however, the Congress durbar in Delhi is letting him have his way, just to see what Kishor can deliver by March 2017. If Kishor fails in both UP and Punjab, the story would get over anyway. Even if he fails, however, he may end up changing how the Congress party functions.

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