Around 50 leaders of the Congress party from Uttar Pradesh met at the All India Congress Committee headquarters in Delhi today. It was a usual meeting to chalk out the battleplan for the UP state assembly elections, to be held exactly twelve months from now. Rahul Gandhi was present, but the extra-ordinary thing about the meeting was the presence of someone who is not a member of the Congress party: campaign strategist Prashant Kishor.
The AICC had recently announced its approval of Kishor helping Captain Amarinder Singh for the Punjab assembly elections, to be held around the same time as Uttar Pradesh. The mandate for Punjab meant Kishor working mostly with the Captain. UP, however, implies working with Rahul Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi seems to have involved Kishor at a pan-India level, without waiting for the Punjab results.
"It is a foregone conclusion that if Prashant pulls off Punjab, he will work closely with us till 2019," says a highly placed source in the Congress party. But now, Rahul Gandhi seems to have involved Kishor at a pan-India level, without waiting for the Punjab results.
Therein lies a tale: quietly, Kishor has become a de facto advisor to Rahul Gandhi. It is not just one or two states, Kishor is now likely to be designing the Congress campaign strategy in every state election until 2019, except the ones to be held in April-May. This is why Kishor is not moving in with Amarinder Singh the way he did with Modi for 2014 or Nitish Kumar for 2015. Kishor will be working mostly out of Delhi, having already been given the keys to the Congress party's "war room" at 15 Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Road in central Delhi.
Every state election until 2019, whether the Congress wins or loses them, will be used by Kishor and his team to give the Congress party a fresh new look, that of a resurgent party. Since Brand Gandhi is at an all time low, the strategy won't be to do a presidential style campaign as Kishor did with Narendra Modi or Nitish Kumar. Instead, the Congress party will be made to look better in the ground, automatically raising the stature of the Gandhis.
Prashant Kishor's team denied rumours that Priyanka Gandhi could be fielded as the chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. However, it is expected that the Congress will introduce some "disruption" in Uttar Pradesh to become relevant again.
Making the Congress party look like a relevant player in UP will in itself be an achievement, but the party along with Kishor's team will be gunning for a majority.
In Bihar, the Congress party was irrelevant despite a consistent vote-share of 8% plus. Making the Congress party look like a relevant player in UP will in itself be an achievement, but the party along with Kishor's team will be gunning for a majority.
Uttar Pradesh is the route to India, and home turf of the Gandhis. An apparent revival of the Congress in UP, stopping the Aam Aadmi Party's rise in Punjab and then, in winter 2017, making the BJP struggle to retain Gujarat – all of this is now part of Kishor's ambitious plan to defeat Narendra Modi in 2019.
Key to doing so will be rebranding Rahul Gandhi. The Congress vice president who gets mocked as "pappu" by opponents, will have to come across as a seasoned leader and not just as someone who's been trying to change the system.
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