How Prashant Kishor is changing the way Congress fights UP elections

Never before in the history of the party are ticket aspirants being asked to undergo such a tough screening and muti-level filtering process.

 |  7-minute read |   25-07-2016
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About a week ago, a sitting MLA from eastern Uttar Pradesh got a phone call from a girl wanting to cross-check his name, address and phone number. The MLA took her for a marketing or survey agent and was about to disconnect when the girl asked him politely, "Are you not serious about contesting election on a Congress ticket this time?"

Startled, he asked, "Who are you and why are you asking me this?"

"I am calling you from the UPCC call centre," she said. "And I am asking you this because you have yet not submitted the 'booth list' even though the last date is just few days away".

The MLA immediately sat up. This was the working of Prashant Kishor.

Never before in the history of Congress have ticket aspirants been asked to undergo such a tough screening and muti-level filtering process just to qualify as an eligible candidate.

Party tickets up until now have always been a matter of loyalty, taking into account caste calculations, money or muscle power and, most importantly, the right connection with the top leadership.

A senior Congress leader tells me, "The stocks of the party may have gone down sharply in last three decades, but the demand for a Congress ticket has only kept going up in every election. The reason for that is money. In Assembly elections, the party gives every candidate around Rs 15 lakhs to Rs 25 lakhs. Most candidates, knowing that there is little chance of a victory, are used to pocketing this money rather than spending it on election related expenses".

The concept of a political party office affiliated call centre calling up ticket seekers and a professional back office verifying credentials is alien for politicians of the state. But thanks to "PK", things have changed drastically in the Congress party.

On the first floor and second floor of the Congress office at Mall Avenue in Lucknow, a horde of youngsters are busy working the computers and phones in three different rooms that have been especially vacated for them. They are members of Team PK.

prashantfb_072516060_072516063737.jpg Prashant Kishor has made the screening process for Congress ticket aspirants extremely tough in UP.

These members barely interact with Congress leaders or workers and are trained to be tight-tipped about what they are working on. Their rooms are always closed and the notice pasted on the doors warns, "No Entry".

Three persons, all of them in their early 30s, are in charge of handling this somewhat covert process of screening and weeding out the non-serious ticket seekers. Vinesh Chandel and Robin help in supervising the work being done by Team PK.

Shashank Shukla, from Rahul Gandhi's office, also closely coordinates with Team PK and the Congress.

Congress office is not the only place from where the call centers are operating from to turn the party fortunes around.

Around 150 people, most of them tried and tested in Bihar elections, where they micromanaged the campaign of Nitish Kumar, are toiling day and night to repeat the magic and ensure PK lives up to his reputation of being a "master strategist".

Also read: All that Congress will do to go down fighting this UP elections

The screening for tickets is a three level process and the first level has already been completed.

All the prospective candidates are required to fill up and submit a form called "booth list".

Every ticket seeker is supposed to submit a name, address and phone number of at least one person who is a dedicated Congress loyalist and is ready to be the person's booth agent if the person succeeds in getting a ticket.

The moment a ticket seeker submits this information, the data is fed into a special software developed for this work. Almost instantly, the back office starts working on analysing the data. Calls then are made to all persons in the booth list to verify if they know the candidate personally and are willing to work for him if he gets the Congress ticket.

A person associated with the process, who does not want to be identified, tells me, "There are 403 seats in Uttar Pradesh. Every seat has about 15 to 20 persons who want the Congress ticket and every seat has about 350 booths. So booth lists alone have provided the Congress a data bank of more than 2.5 lakh Congress workers. Ultimately, only one aspirant is going to get the ticket. And booth level workers data bank will become the valuable asset for Congress party."

Also read: Congress in UP is all talk, no show

For a party which has been out of power for almost 27 years in the state with its defunct cadre base and negligible workers on the ground, collecting the name of even one person at every booth is proving to be an uphill task.

One ticket seeker, who wants a ticket from Chillupar seat in Gorakhpur district, was recently seen pleading for some more time to complete the booth list and managed to only submit a list for half the booths.

"This seat has 435 booths and I will have to reach many of these areas in a boat. I am taking help of family members and relatives to find out 435 persons as the party has almost no cadres. I also know there are people who are spending huge amounts of money and have outsourced the work of preparation of booth list," he tells me.

The aspirants who have completed the first level are supposed to come up with five names per booth. These could also be members of a family who has been a Congress supporter and is now willing to vote and support the party again. Once again, this list is analysed again by calling and verifying the authenticity of the persons.

At the second stage, filtration is even more stringent.

Members from the team of PK will now travel to different parts of the state to do a physical verification, which includes meeting and interacting with ticket seekers as well as the persons whose names have been provided. This is to eradicate any chance of ghost names and duplication. Once that is done, other factors like caste equations, popularity and how long the person has been in the Congress will be taken into consideration.

By now, the list of serious ticket aspirants per seat comes down to four to five per Assembly seat. "These shortlisted candidates will then be meeting the UPCC chief Raj Babbar and screening committee head Nirmal Khatri. Plans are also in place to let these people directly meet Ghulam Nabi Azad and may be Rahul Gandhi as well," a source tells me.

Also read: How Priyanka Gandhi persuaded Sheila Dikshit to be Congress' UP face

The idea is to zero down on just two names per seat, which will be sent to the Central Election Committee, headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. That is where the final decision will be taken.

To check the tendency of pocketing the money meant for election campaigning, a new approach is also being planned. Congress observers from other states will be brought to UP to oversee the election related expenditure. Instead of giving direct cash, election materials like banners, posters, flags and pamphlets would be provided by the party.

Is all this enough to turn the fortunes of Congress party in Uttar Pradesh around?

Recently, in an internal meeting of the party in Lucknow, one leader wondered that if 15 to 20 aspirants are putting in so much work just to qualify for the selection process, will they not sabotage the Congress candidate's chances when denied ticket?

This is one question PK needs to ponder upon.

Writer

Balkrishna Balkrishna @bala3047

TV Journalist with India Today Group @aajtak. Avid photographer, Tech Junkie. Passionate about travelling & exploring new places.

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