Why Prashant Kishor will need more than a ‘war room’ strategy to win UP for Congress

The MBA-style approach won’t always work

ByVikram Johri
Why Prashant Kishor will need more than a ‘war room’ strategy to win UP for Congress
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A growing trend in Indian politics is the success of master strategists who hunker down on a state a year-or-so before elections and bring success to whichever camp they work for. Amit Shah did this in Uttar Pradesh for General Election 2014, and Prashant Kishor achieved the same feat in Bihar last year. Now Kishor has been tasked with reviving the Congress’ fortunes in the UP Assembly Elections, due in 2017.

The master strategists use a combination of tricks, ranging from getting voters out on polling day to using data sets to understand which way the tide will turn. This MBA-style approach is deeply endearing to those who can’t bear the messy unpredictability of elections. They have begun to believe that elections can be won from inside a high-intensity “war room” where bright minds converge and change the course of history.

A deeper analysis would reveal how wrong this idea is. Apart from Kishor who struck gold with both Modi in 2014 and Nitish Kumar last year, there is no other proof for the sustained success of these endeavours. Amit Shah who romped home with a massive victory in 2014, bit the dust in Bihar 2015.

What is curious about this state of affairs is the trouncing of Amit Shah’s campaign in Bihar. Kishor and Shah are known to employ similar methods to reach to the grassroots, notably voter outreach (both Shah and Kishor divvied up their catchment areas into individual units in order to reach as many voters as possible). Both men worked with local leaders and, in both UP and Bihar, relied on “winnability” as the primary criterion to distribute tickets. This entailed keeping in mind a host of factors, such as caste arithmetic and local influence, to decide the party’s line-up.

Yet, if similar strategies were followed by both Shah and Kishor in Bihar, and if these strategies are assumed to be the deciding factor, what explains the result? The truth is: local level micromanagement can only yield so much. You cannot script the kind of victory Modi accomplished in 2014 or Nitish in 2015 without an omnipresent groundswell of support.

It is important to keep this in mind because there is a growing trend to look at elections as corporate-style battles that are decided on the sole criterion of who manages them. What else explains the Congress’ hope that it will see a revival in a state where its party organisation is in tatters? (Even if this state of affairs were true, which thankfully it is not, it would be frightening for a democracy because it would add another grim iteration to how everything can be “fixed”, no matter leadership or ideology.)

Look to the US. The current election campaign has thrown up a deep challenge to political scientists and pollsters. The steady rise of Donald Trump, who will likely become the Republican nominee for President, has confounded experts. An article in The Economist put it down to the popularity of “The Party Decides”, the doctrine that no candidate can make it to the nomination without support of the party establishment. Trump’s rise has put paid to that theory.

Similarly, received political wisdom in the aftermath of General Election 2014 was that the Indian voter was now a changed beast, and will only vote on the basis of which party or candidate makes the most potent promises of development. While Nitish certainly stands for good governance, his victory could not have happened without the support of Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janta Dal, about whose rule the less said, the better.

So, this idea that a monolithic political moment stretches beyond its immediate confines needs to be junked. There is another element to Trump’s rise broached in The Economist piece cited above, one that shows the hollowness of relying on data sets. An overreliance on data has been an active ingredient of American politics since Nate Silver, the data expert who founded Five Thirty Eight, correctly predicted the result of 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 Presidential election.

The piece argues:  “…when a clownish insurgent called Donald Trump leapt to the top of the Republican polls, data journalists had their ammunition ready. In a story last July entitled ‘Here’s Why He Won’t Win’, Andrew Prokop of Vox predicted it would be hard ‘for candidates like [Mr Trump] to appeal to party elites’. ‘Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls’ was the title of a piece in November by Mr Silver. ‘Donald Trump…will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline,’ concurred Nate Cohn of ‘The Upshot’ in July.”

Election analysis is the most fraught of disciplines at the best of times, as NDTV learned to its peril during Bihar elections 2015. To then imagine that an election, which involves so many ponderable and imponderable factors, can be managed from a central location, is to subscribe to the most harebrained of theories.

As Kishor takes up the mantle of reviving the Congress in UP, it might do him good to remember that he will need more than a “war room” to achieve the task before him.

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