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Did Rahul Gandhi allow Prashant Kishor to turn broker for Congress?

Saroj Nagi
Saroj NagiNov 08, 2016 | 19:50

Did Rahul Gandhi allow Prashant Kishor to turn broker for Congress?

Traditionally, in several parts of the country, it is the Indian barber (the nai) who facilitates matrimonial alliances.

The special position he enjoys in this regard sometimes spilled onto politics as well, as, for instance, when a contestant ropes in a man from the nai or dhobi caste or community to be among his signatories in the nomination form - as Rahul Gandhi had done when he jumped into the electoral fray in 2004.

Insofar as political and electoral alliances are concerned, the role is played either by senior leaders/aides or middlemen and political fixers who have a cross-party nexus.

That role now seems to be partially hijacked by hired professionals much to the discomfiture of political old timers, veterans and aides who believe that such delicate equations are best handled by in-house politicians and not outsiders.

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Kishor called on SP chief Mulayam twiceand followed it up with a three-hour meeting with Akhilesh - all within a matter of days. Credit: Indiatoday.in

The brewing anger at a professional strategist attempting to turn into an alliance broker for the Congress is threatening to boil over so much so that many believe that he should either be jettisoned or cut to size.

Strategist turns alliance broker?

In a departure from the known practice, Buxar-born poll strategist Prashant Kishor - hired by Congress to improve its prospects in the upcoming UP and Punjab Assembly elections - was spotted at least four times confabulating, apparently for his client, with the Samajwadi leadership, which remains divided between SP supremo Mulayam Singh's brother and the party's UP chief Shivpal Yadav and his son and UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.

Unlike earlier occasions when party seniors would quietly work behind the scenes to sniff out potential partners, Kishor was in attendance when Shivpal recently met KC Tyagi, a JD-U stalwart. On November 1, he called on Mulayam in the presence of SP leader Amar Singh, whose induction into the party was being resisted by Akhilesh. These meetings fuelled speculation that the two parties were exploring a tie-up for the polls.

The speculations mounted when Kishor called on Mulayam twice again and followed it up with a three-hour meeting with Akhilesh - all within a matter of days.

Indeed, the spate of meetings had his critics suspecting that the health activist-turned-political strategist, who had earlier successfully handled BJP leader Narendra Modi's Lok Sabha campaign in 2014 and the mahagathbandan (grand alliance) of JD(U)-RJD-Congress in 2015 that brought Nitish Kumar to power once again, may have sensed that his strategy for the Congress in UP was, perhaps, not working - and was trying to cover his tracks and shift base.

There is no doubt that Kishor's Project Congress is among his most difficult assignments so far. It involves trying to transform the image of Rahul Gandhi, who has been in active politics for more than a decade now from a reluctant to a serious politician as well as engaging Priyanka Vadra to inject a new freshness, aggressiveness and enthusiasm into the campaign.

It also involves re-building the party's erstwhile social coalition of BMW (Brahmin-muslim-weaker sections, which account for 10, 19 and 21 percent of the state population, respectively) to hitch a ride to success in UP, where it has been out of power for 27 years and is now a fringe force.

The task also includes pushing the party to power in Punjab where it is competing with Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to grab the anti-incumbency vote of the ruling Akali Dal-BJP.

Was the high command in the loop?

There is no word whether Kishor suo motu called on the Samajwadi Party leadership or was sought out by them or deputed by the Congress high command for the talks. However, it is unlikely that the Congress leadership was not in the loop about the meetings even if UP Congress chief Raj Babbar said that Kishor's meeting was personal and he was not authorised to talk to anyone on the Congress' behalf. But, he added, the party has not shut its doors to any possibility of a tie-up if it benefits the people of the state.

The fact that Kishor met Mulayam and Akhilesh even after Babbar's remarks gives out two contradictory signals: one, that Kishor is already on his way out; and two, that he could not have approached the SP leaders again without some sort of concurrence from the Congress' top bosses, in particular Rahul, whose ears he has.

Kishor's critics - and almost everyone in the Congress's state unit and at the central level - have placed their bets on the first. But there are two tell-tale signs supporting the second view as well. For the first, one has only to recall how Rahul and Akhilesh had recently praised each other. The former had described Akhilesh as "well meaning" and the latter returned the compliment by dubbing the Congressman as a "good boy" and even stood by him for over his contentious "khoon ki dalali" remarks, while stating that Modi was politicising the surgical strikes.

The second refers to an impending and qualitative change in the situation in the Congress where all alliance talks were finalised by Sonia. But on November 7, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) - which Rahul presided over in Sonia's absence - proposed that the Amethi MP take over as party chief and the latter consented. The proposal has been duly been forwarded to Sonia, who has long been wanting to pass on the baton to him.

Once Rahul's elevation is formalised through another Working Committee meeting -which is expected before the year is out - he would, as party chief, put his seal on any alliance talks, with Kishor then probably asked to step back into the shadows. Indeed, the UP and Punjab elections may be held under Rahul's stewardship as party chief.

Cong leaders upset with Kishor

But talk to any senior Congress leader and they plead ignorance on whether Kishor had the sanction of the high command to do what he has been doing. Indeed, they plead ignorance about anything that he does and refuse to be drawn into something of which they have little knowledge, specially whether Rahul and Kishor are on the same page.

There is, however, little doubt that most of them are upset at the manner in which Kishor has positioned himself above them so much so that those who called the shots earlier now have to kow-tow to him and his team (called I-PAC or Indian Political Action Committee) who , unlike them, did not have to go through the rough and tumble of politics or volunteer their blood, sweat, tears, time and energy for the party/ leadership.

"Instead of being the backroom boy that he should have been, he has positioned himself up front and acquired a profile that is much larger than the senior leaders who have dedicated decades to the party," said one such disgruntled Congressman.

Kishor's mandate, according to them, was to cast the grand old party as a resurgent force and give its leadership, in particular Rahul Gandhi, a fresh look so that it makes an impact not only in UP - where it could win only Sonia and Rahul's Rae Bareli and Amethi parliamentary seats in 2014 - but also gear up the party for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Does the Congress need an alliance?

To be fair to Kishor, he must have realised that notwithstanding the Congress' public utterances of going it alone, it would need to join forces with other parties to make an electoral impact.

For a national party which dominated the state's politics for four decades after Independence, the slide in seats and comparative vote share has been rapid. It got only 22 of the 403 Assembly seats in 2007.

In 2009, it won 22 of the 80 Lok Sabha on the strength of UPA-I's pro-poor farm loan waiver scheme and the Employment Guarantee Act. In the 2012 state polls, it won only two of the 10 Assembly seats in Amethi and Rae Bareli. The real drubbing came in 2014 when it could just hold on to Rahul and Sonia's parliamentary seats.

But before the Congress can talk about any alliance, it needed to be become a part of the political narrative of the state, a condition which was partially achieved with Rahul's 26-day Deoria to Delhi kisan yatra that covered over 3,000 km across 48 districts and 141 Assembly constituencies in UP. Subsequent campaigns are meant to ensure that the party stays on the people's minds, and is counted as an important factor in any pre-or post-poll scenario.

But Kishor seemed to go beyond the accepted political norm by publicly confabulating with the SP and signalling that he is also capable of brokering alliances between rivals - as he had done by facilitating a mahagathbandan (grand alliance) between Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav and the Congress for the 2015 Bihar Assembly polls.

This has not gone down well with the Congress' UP unit, which considers the SP as an opponent weighed down by incumbency and infighting in the Yadav family. It fears that any tie-up would taint it with the acts of omission and commission of the regime, limit the number of seats it would get to contest, hamper the effort to put the organisation back on its feet and signal that it is afraid of contesting independently even after announcing its chief-ministerial candidate in Sheila Dikshit.

Besides, UP Congressmen believe a four-cornered contest would suit the party more than a three-legged race between the SP-Congress, the BSP and the BJP.

"It would make more sense for the Congress to explore an understanding with the BSP,'' said one such leader. But then the BSP under Mayawati prefers to lead on its own.

Kishor's attempts to play the umpire in Punjab were stoutly resisted by Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief Captain Amarinder Singh.

Though the I-PAC team came up with catchy ideas like Coffee with Captain and Halke vich Captain, the former chief minister was irked that ticket seekers were lining up at Kishor's door and the strategist had met expelled Congress leaders like Jagmeet Brar Singh, who did not hold back his punches and even took his complaint against Kishor to the bosses in Delhi.

With anger and confusion prevailing over Kishor's role and mandate, it is time for the Congress leadership or the strategist to clear the air.

Last updated: November 08, 2016 | 19:50
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