Prashant Kishor lost JDU’s turf war. That’s why he’s gone

By expelling him and Pavan Varma, Nitish Kumar shows leaders closer to the ground are more valuable to his party than technocratic Chanakyas waging battles on social media.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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After over a year, murmurs at the Janata Dal United office in Patna finally came to fruition on January 29: Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s office decided to expel the party’s vice president, Prashant Kishor, and national spokesperson, Pavan Varma.

The expulsion of Kishor and Varma can be seen as the victory of the entrenched and local over the rushed, newfangled and abstract. Though the immediate circumstances that triggered their expulsions were similar, they were shown the door for different reasons.

The long and short of Kishor’s journey in the JDU, since joining in September 2018, is that he failed to win the intraparty turf war which a handpicked leader, bypassing the party ladder to the top, must win. In fact, fast-tracking Kishor to the vice president’s role in the party proved to be one of the clumsiest cases of lateral entry into the top brass of any important political party in India.

Kishor’s immediate challenge was the silent resentment that his sudden rise had evoked among the JDU’s old guard. He also had to handle the new generation of party workers and leaders — a motley group either rooted in the party’s support base of non-Yadav OBCs (mainly Kurmis) and Mahadalit, or influential uppercaste leaders, former bureaucrats, political managers, and those wielding social capital.

Kishor was seen as an outsider usurping the party’s top post only on the basis of his technocratic and strategic inputs for the party’s win as part of the Grand Alliance in 2015. Beyond that, what didn’t help matters was the timing of his public utterances within a few months of joining the party.

Not only did it give his detractors in the JDU ammunition to target his naïveté — if not his intentions — the constant need to defend Kishor in the party made Nitish rethink the latter’s larger role in the party. Kishor’s comment, for instance, on why the party needed to seek a fresh mandate in 2017, after severing its ties with the Grand Alliance, sounded like a leader who was too sure of his own voice within the party before becoming the party’s voice.

More worrying for Kishor was the lack of a popular base to build his political capital on. Popular appeal was certainly not a part of the profile of a party vice president whose route to the top had been professional poll consultancy. Perhaps this anxiety drove him to intensify attempts to reach out to the youth — a segment that isn’t very different from the political behaviour of conventional voting groups in Bihar. His personal involvement in the Patna University Students’ Union election in December 2018 is a case in point, even though the JDU’s partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused him of trying to “influence” the university polls by meeting the vice chancellor and violating the code of conduct.

The BJP was Kishor’s 2014 Lok Sabha election consultancy client. Now, while he was still nursing a professional fallout with the BJP, and intermittently attacking it, a key Nitish aide made himself very significant to the process of making the alliance work to the JDU’s advantage.

This was Ramchandra Prasad Singh, or RCP as he is popularly know. In fact, RCP’s rising stock in the JDU ran parallel to the marginalisation of Kishor. RCP is a former IAS officer who worked as secretary to Nitish during his stint in the union cabinet in the late 1990s, and later as his principal secretary when Nitish became Bihar’s chief minister in 2005. He resigned from the IAS in 2010 to become a Rajya Sabha MP with the JDU’s support.

RCP belongs to the same caste as Nitish (Kurmi) and the same district (Nalanda). However, a section of Patna’s political observers believe what brought him closer to Nitish is his grasp of political management, policy matters, and organisational skills. His handling of the Jitan Manjhi fallout, severing ties with the Grand Alliance, and realigning with the BJP made him integral to Nitish’s hold over power politics in Patna.

The most clinching moment of the quiet, bureaucratic and low-profile RCP clipping the high-profile Kishor’s wings came during the 2019 Lok Sabha election. With active lobbying, RCP was credited with bagging a good number of seats for the JDU in a seat-sharing formula with the BJP.

The BJP gave the JDU generous concessions while sharing seats. The 17-17-6 formula for the BJP-JDU-Lok Janshakti Party greatly benefited the JDU and the Lok Janshakti Party as they won many seats by riding on Modi’s popularity wave. In fact, the BJP had let go of the five seats it had won in 2014 (when its tally in the state was 23) to accommodate its allies.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the NDA won 39 of Bihar’s 40 seats, with the JDU winning 16 of the 17 seats it contested, the BJP 17, and the Lok Janshakti Party six. Perhaps a more decisive number from the 2019 result is one that Nitish can’t be indifferent to in the immediate frame of electoral arithmetic: the NDA’s vote share was unassailably higher than that of the rival group. The RJD-led alliance was 28 percent behind the NDA in vote share. It could get only 25 percent of the vote as against the NDA’s 53 percent.

In a comparative frame — though that might be deceptive, given the difference between Lok Sabha and Assembly polls — in the 2015 Assembly election, despite the loss, the NDA’s vote share was only seven percent behind the rival alliance’s.

Despite being a seemingly reluctant ally, such impressive electoral reasoning could be enough for a rooted politician like Nitish to value the NDA. Intermittent hobnobbing with opposition parties led by the Congress, as Pavan Verma has alleged in his media interview, isn’t unlikely — but Nitish is perceptive enough to not rock the boat when a future power arrangement isn’t within striking distance.

RCP’s rise to the position of de facto number two in the JDU, and Kishor’s containment, also benefited from a simultaneous development. Lalan Singh, alias Rajesh Ranjan Singh, is a close Nitish aide and an MP from Munger. He was once as influential as RCP and there existed a rivalry between the two — until Kishor became their unlikely common opponent. Observers are of the opinion that both made peace to somehow sideline Kishor, and their combined effort played a role in cutting Kishor to size in the JDU’s pecking order.

Interestingly, the recent crackdown led by Lipi Singh, RCP’s daughter and a Bihar cadre IPS officer, on Lalan Singh’s political rival, Anant Singh — the Barh-Mokama strongman who, like Singh, belongs to Bhumihar caste — is seen as a sign of this rapprochement.

There is a perception among JDU watchers that Kishor’s eventual exit was a matter of time. It came when the usually restrained RCP openly questioned Kishor’s contribution to the party, in response to Kishor’s objections to the party's stand on the Citizenship Amendment Act. For a regional political force like the JDU, leaders having little or no stake in securing the power matrix in the party bastion, while grandstanding on social media, neither win the trust of ground workers nor enhance their utility for the party chief.

While Kishor’s ouster was the result of a number of these factors, Varma’s expulsion could be attributed to the last one only.

The former diplomat, despite having a long career in the Indian Foreign Service, somehow couldn’t come to terms with the brief of another type of ambassadorial role: as the party’s point person in Delhi.

It’s a kind of role that regional parties have been assigning to the suave and the articulate, and those with networking skills in the national capital. However, the brief is the same as that of a diplomat representing a country abroad: understanding the current imperatives. As in diplomacy, the power play in domestic politics entails that the immediate is more important than the essential.

That’s something Varma couldn’t grasp when asking Nitish for “ideological clarity” in what is the party's pragmatic move. Nitish himself aimed to keep the party favourably positioned in seat-sharing arrangements for the Assembly election later this year, and possible inductions into the union cabinet too.

In his last comment on Varma and Kishor, Nitish finally said something that many in the JDU long wanted to hear. In a way, it meant that the Chanakyas entrenched in party’s structure and closer to the ground are more valuable than the technocratic Chanakyas waging verbal battles on social media.

In his thinly-veiled attack on “tweet-weet” and “intellectual” abstractions in the face of the need to respect party discipline, the chief minister was clear about how he views the immediate. Governing from the land of Chanakya, he sees no immediate need to be guided by the party’s outposts of wisdom in Delhi.

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