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Elections, Prashant Kishore & Political Strategy to be adopted by BJP in state elections

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Akhil Sarathy is a legal professional. He is based in Mumbai.

Narendra Modi’s successful presidential style political campaign for the General Elections of 2014 has in my view, had a lasting impact on how elections will likely be fought in India in the foreseeable future.

Modi’s effective utilization of social media communication platforms to promote his ‘Acche Din’ and ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ slogans, together with unique initiatives as part of his 2014 poll campaign, like the Chai pe Charcha campaign and his 3D Hologram speeches, to mobilize support for the BJP under his leadership, were game changers which his unprepared political opponents, in the General elections of 2014, had absolutely no clue how to counter.

If I could borrow a phrase from common business parlance, Narendra Modi’s Social Media heavy political campaign, benefited immensely from what one could describe as a ‘First mover’s advantage’ on the optimum utilization of Social Media for electoral gain. The sort of First Mover’s advantage, that proved to be much too strong and overwhelming, even for a section of the Traditional Indian Mainstream Media, both electronic and print (despite all their crony connections to the old political establishment) to ignore.

This is not to suggest that the BJP under Narendra Modi’s leadership could not have come to power, had they not adopted such initiatives in their political campaign. The sentiment of anti-incumbency, towards ten years of a patchy and scam ridden UPA Government, coupled with Narendra Modi’s formidable record as Chief Minister of Gujarat, were in my opinion, the major contributing factors towards influencing the electorate of India, into viewing a Narendra Modi led BJP, as a viable political alternative to the Congress. But all the same, the importance of the role played by Social Media and linked political initiatives in Modi’s successful campaign in 2014 is something which in my view, cannot possibly be written off as insignificant.

Fast forward to the present, and there is bound to be a drastic shift in this Social Media Political paradigm. BJP is no longer the sole vestige of social media political maneuvering in election campaigns. Political parties across the board will likely adopt and have already adopted, in the few state elections that have been fought post 2014, social media platforms as part of their strategy in political campaigning for elections; the most successful case in point being Nitish Kumar’s political campaign for the Bihar State Assembly elections of 2015.

Newspaper Reports and Op-Eds analyzing the results of the Bihar Assembly elections have already documented at length, the efforts of a professional political strategy and consulting group of professionals known as the Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC) in helping Nitish Kumar achieve his political victory in Bihar, by adopting a combination of low cost social media initiatives, as well as traditional campaign methods, to outdo a strategically flawed yet purportedly cash heavy (if mainstream media reports are to be believed) BJP political campaign that relied heavily on Narendra Modi’s popularity; and admittedly lacked the presence of a charismatic local face, in the presence of a receding Modi Wave.

As most political savvy readers may already know, there is a reason for this apparently striking similarity in the approaches adopted in Narendra Modi’s 2014 General election campaign and Nitish Kumar’s 2015 Bihar State Assembly campaign; both of which were tremendously successful; and this reason can be attributed to the fact that both these election campaigns benefited immensely from the efforts of teams of diverse professionals, which were led by a man named Prashant Kishor.

Now I haven’t necessarily been swayed by those many mainstream media editorials  after the Bihar election results, that have in effect portrayed the political strategist, Prashant Kishor as a genius of sorts, who single handedly trounced Amit Shah and Modi in Bihar; but all the same, one would have to acknowledge that Prashant Kishor, as it stands now, is certainly a force to reckon with in Indian politics.

For why else would a seasoned politician like Nitish Kumar consider a relatively young man in his late 30’s, worthy of being assigned the position of adviser to the Bihar Chief Minister on policy implementation in Bihar of developmental programmes and resolutions ; a designation equivalent to that of a State Cabinet Minister; and a decision of Nitish Kumar’s that has apparently also riled some really old hands in Bihar’s bureaucracy.

Perhaps Nitish Kumar wants to keep in good spirits, someone like Prashant Kishor, who would likely help him further his own personal ‘sky high’ political ambitions (if you know what I mean); which would perhaps shed light on why Nitish Kumar has given Mr. Kishor such an important position in his Government.

Of course there is no calling into question the credentials of Prashant Kishor for the job he has been assigned by Nitish Kumar. Prashant Kishor after all, did start off his career as a public health activist in India, who then went on to work for the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, before finally being hired by Narendra Modi as a Social Sector Policy Advisor in Gujarat.

However as fate would have it; it is Prashant Kishor’s skills as a Political Strategist that have brought him into mainstream focus, particularly after the Bihar Assembly elections. Although it was said to be his involvement in Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign, during which he was apparently working out of Narendra Modi’s official residence; and leading the efforts of a Citizen’s Volunteer group known as the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) which was widely credited as being significant to the campaign’s success.

The reason for the politically agnostic Prashant Kishor, to thereafter abandon the (CAG) and switch sides to support Nitish Kumar by forming (IPAC) is not exactly known; but there was some suggestion that Prashant Kishor may have been sidelined by BJP President Amit Shah after the General Elections of 2014.

Whatever be the reason for Prashant Kishor’s decision to switch loyalties, the fact remains that he is on the opposite side to the BJP now; and if he really is half as effective at structuring political campaigns and devising political strategy, as the media is making him out to be; then he might just end up becoming a thorn in the side of a Narendra Modi led BJP’s future, keeping in mind the 2019 General Elections, which are really not that far away.

In fact, Mr. Prashant Kishor has already begun pursuing (Apart from his official endeavors with the Bihar State Government) what would seem like a freelance career in Political Consulting by rendering his professional expertise to the political campaigns of Non-BJP State leaders like Congress’s Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab ; with another possible professional mandate of helping Mamata Banerjee’s campaign in West Bengal. Campaigns which if they prove to be successful, will each be viewed and reported with that standard rhetoric of ‘another nail in BJP’s Coffin’ by a presently resentful ‘secular elite’ and biased media that avails of any and every opportunity to discredit Narendra Modi.

Maybe one could dismiss such apprehensions by a suggestion that I am attaching way too much importance to a single individual, who may just be a media creation.

But there is no reason why the BJP should not take note of this possible ‘political challenge’ and also start adopting its 2014 election political strategy in the several upcoming state elections, by announcing in advance, Chief Ministerial Candidates for each of the State elections; and allowing these candidates to independently canvass and lead State level political campaigns, without relying too heavily on widespread campaigning by Narendra Modi in the run up to these state elections.

The BJP President has perhaps already taken a step in this direction, by choosing to announce Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs, Sarbananda Sonowal as its Chief Ministerial candidate for the Assam elections to be fought in June 2016.

But simply announcing a candidate to represent the BJP may not always be sufficient, as we know from the BJP’s experience with the Delhi State Elections of 2015; because the selected candidate must also be a mass leader with a vision that is specific to the practical needs and wants of the electorate in a particular state.

Maybe that’s one reason why it would be a good idea for the BJP President to consider seeking professional counsel in these matters (if he isn’t already doing so), by comprehensively reviving the (CAG); and involving professional political consultants and strategists who could offer an outside and non-political perspective on election matters; and also build a campaign around the selected candidates. Something that Prashant Kishor is likely going to start doing soon for individual leaders in Punjab and West Bengal; and perhaps even in future state elections for various candidates.

Obviously it is most important for the BJP led NDA Government at the Centre to deliver on the mandate that it has received from the people of India in 2014, and thereby cite its good performance as a platform to seek the mandate of electorates in various State Assembly elections; and ultimately in the 2019 General Elections.

But there are also important battles of a political nature that need to be fought hard, in order for the BJP to sustain itself politically in the long run; and these battles I refer to are the battles of perception that require a person’s undivided attention; something Narendra Modi, whose job it is to run the Government at the Centre is perhaps not best suited to be fighting single handedly.

These are Battles of Perception, which professionals like Prashant Kishor appear to be rather effective; and presently perhaps even better than the BJP at winning; battles that Amit Shah would have to win for the BJP; if the BJP wants to eventually win another war in 2019.

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Akhil Sarathy is a legal professional. He is based in Mumbai.
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