Prashant Kishor-Gamble: Hardly a Wise Congress-Move!

Prashant Kishor

Congress party is apparently gambling a little too much on Prashant Kishor. He is not a jinn nor is a miracle-man who can suddenly reverse political fortunes of Congress with his strategies. It may be recalled, his services were of hardly any help to Congress in 2017 Uttar Pradesh (UP) Assembly elections. Even his inclusion in the party is least likely to boost electoral gains of party. One assumed that Congress has become wiser after banking a little too much on Navjot Singh Sidhu during recently held Punjab Assembly elections. Sidhu joined Congress in 2017. Besides, Prashant’s brief membership of Janata Dal (United) (2018-20) and his limited role in helping this party in 2015 Bihar cannot be sidelined. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) won more seats (80) than JD(U) (71). RJD succeeded in winning 58 more seats than it did in 2010 while JD(U) won 44 lesser in 243-member Assembly.

Without taking Prashant’s help, JD(U) won 43 seats in 2020 polls, while RJD secured 75 and BJP- 74. The results may have been different if – grand alliance formed for 2015 polls, which collapsed in 2017 with JD(U) choosing to align with BJP- had remained. What needs to be paid attention is that winners of electoral politicking in 2015 and 2020 Bihar elections were not decided by Prashant’s strategies. In 2015, RJD won more seats than JD(U) without Prashant’s help. Equally significant is his brief association with JD(U). It signals that there is no knowing when he may turn his back towards a party, quitting his association with it. Given his background, chances of his playing a major role in revival of Congress seem extremely slim even if he chooses to join this party.

It would perhaps be wiser of Congress to learn from its own political errors and also from strategies which have helped its rivals move ahead. In addition, the party needs to focus on its priorities. The party must accept the hard reality that it is as yet too early for it to sweep assembly polls in certain states, including UP, Bihar and West Bengal (WB) among others. Undeniably, till anti-BJP regional parties maintain a strong stand in several states, prospects of BJP emerging the winner there on its own strength seem limited. BJP’s key strategy in such states has apparently primarily centred round strategy of “divide and win”. Think seriously, if BJP leaders had not divided Bihar’s grand alliance by convincing Nitish Kumar -along with his party JD(U)- to align with their party, BJP would have probably remained in opposition.

Clearly, Sidhu’s strategies only created damaging divisions within Congress camp and led it to being pushed out of power in Punjab. Congress cannot afford further divisions within its camp nor can it take risk of overestimating its own strength against that of regional parties. In recently held UP elections, Mayawati probably had “special” reasons for not aligning with BJP’s rivals. It is, however, rather strange that even Samajwadi Party (SP) and Congress didn’t pay much attention to their electoral strategies favouring BJP by leading to division in anti-BJP votes. As mentioned earlier, Prashant’s role was of no help for Congress in previous UP elections.

If as several reports state, Prashant wants Congress to face the electoral battle solely on its own strength in Bihar, Odisha and UP, the party needs to seriously re-consider his suggestion. Whether it is the question of assembly polls or of 2024 parliamentary elections, Congress needs to deliberate on whether it can afford these moves, which in all probability are going to further limit its position in these states. Each state has at least one strong regional party. The regional party in Odisha – Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is aligned with BJP. In 2019 parliamentary polls, Congress won only one seat from here while BJD bagged 12 and BJP-8. During 2019 assembly elections, BJD won 112 seats, BJP-23 and Congress-9 in 147-member Assembly.

With respect to Odisha, it may be said, Congress has no choice. No regional party is available for it to align with unless of course BJD chooses to part ways with BJP. Chances of this happening at present are limited. However, the same cannot be said about Bihar and UP. BJP will certainly not welcome alliance of its rivals in either state. BJP’s prior strategy, as mentioned, is to divide and win.

Congress cannot afford division within its ranks. It needs to learn from its error in Punjab. Besides, Congress needs to open its eyes towards impact of BJP’s strategies, that of “divide and win”, strengthening unity among its ranks and moving with regional parties/leaders the party can align with. Where would BJP stand if it was not aligned with BJD in Odisha, JD(U) in Bihar and if anti-BJP parties were aligned in UP?

Equally imperative is the need for Congress to give greater importance to committed regional leaders. Congress leaders – particularly Priyanka Gandhi Vadra- can certainly attract crowds and gain media coverage almost spelling a headache for their rivals. But voters’ verdict has repeatedly not favoured them. A strong message is conveyed by success of several regional leaders in their respective states. Yogi Adityanath has won in UP and Akhilesh Yadav (SP) has fared better than before. True, in WB, Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress Party) took Prashant’s help but the fact that she herself campaigned strongly and is accepted as an important regional leader cannot be ignored. In Bihar, RJD won the maximum number of seats in 2015 as well as in 2020 elections with Tejashwi Yadav (RJD) in lead.

Punjab electoral results should not be viewed as just Arvind Kejriwal or Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s victory; but more significantly as defeat of Congress due to basically intra-party division. Failure of Congress to keep its house in order helped AAP win. Besides, the emphasis laid by AAP on campaigning with help of regional leaders, particularly Bhagwant Mann cannot be ignored.

Irrespective of whether he joins Congress or not, Prashant’s political elevation is least likely to be welcomed by senior party members. Chances of this leading to intra-party bickering and some members refraining from party activities need to be paid attention. As mentioned earlier, this may lead to repeat of Punjab-folly by giving too much importance to wrong person at a larger scale and in more states than one.

If BJP’s strategy rests on “divide and win”, Congress needs to focus on minimizing this within its camp and through alliance with anti-BJP rivals. BJP’s thrust has also been that of aligning with regional parties and gradually enhancing its own position in their states. Bihar is a classic illustration of this strategy, where alliance with BJP has spelled decline of its own strength for JD(U). Mehbooba Mufti (People’s Democratic Party) has fared more miserably in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) after its alliance with BJP.

In 2019 parliamentary elections, against 37.36% votes won by BJP, Congress got 19.49% votes. However, while BJP secured more than 50% of Lok Sabha seats, only 9.6% were managed by Congress. What cannot be ignored is that not even five percent votes and seats were won by other parties in the race. The assumption that BJP’s victory rested on Modi-wave and/or the so-called Hindutva-jargon is clearly deflated by percentage of votes won by this party.

It would perhaps be wiser for Congress to ensure unity within its own camp, promote active campaigning along with strong regional leaders in various states and try aligning with anti-BJP parties. It is too early for Congress to win a massive majority on its own strength. But yes, the party leaders as well as workers can certainly use strategies to limit success of BJP’s policy of “divide and win”. Congress is definitely not devoid of party workers at various levels. Given that several Congress senior leaders have begun voicing apprehensions about Prashant, these clearly signal the gravity of the situation. The Congress cannot afford gambling on Prashant-card and/or even consider exclusive reliance on his “strategies” as a wise move!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).

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