This is the second episode of the , where opposition parties are asked probing and searing questions and answers given too based on their dealings, strategies and motives, if they are to seriously challenge the NDA government led by prime minister Narendra Modi in state elections and the general election in 2024.
This week’s events have shone a kaleidoscopic light on the shifting political ideas and hues, and the one person who emerges from this multi-coloured political hue, and could be central to the opposition right now, is the man of many political shades: political consultant and strategist Prashant Kishor.
Let’s see how and why.
Early this week came the giddy media excitement about Modi’s midnight visit to the site of the new Parliament in his extravagant and wasteful expenditure on remodeling the Central Vista in the capital. Then came the resignation of Captain Amarinder Singh, now the former chief minister, for his humiliation by the Gandhis, Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka. And finally the surprise announcement by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, now flush with victory at defeating Modi in the recently concluded state election, of pitting her party, the TMC, in the forthcoming Goa assembly election.
How are these far-flung events even connected with opposition politics and strategy? Here’s how.
Why is Modi’s midnight drama of visiting the new under-construction Parliament relevant at this time?
Even as the Modi-toady mainstream media gushed about the PM’s so-called energetic visit to the new Parliament site soon after he returned from his three-day US visit, the opposition is looking with a lot of unease at what the new building – speeding up to be ready next year in time for the winter session in November 2022 – means politically.
While the news focuses on the brand new building and what it will showcase – a giant Constitution Hall, lounges, a library, multiple committee rooms, dining areas, underground car parks, a metro rail system – what the media studiously ignores is that the new Lok Sabha will have 888 MPs (Modi's homage to numerology?) up from the present 543 MPs. Guess which states the 345 new MPs will come from?
If the principle of “one man, one vote” means that every individual has an equal representation of voting, then the new MPs will clearly come from the most populous states today: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu.
But there’s a catch.
For instance, in 1962, Tamil Nadu had 41 MPs in the Lok Sabha. Five years later in 1967, this was reduced to 39 MPs because of a fall in its population led by its successful family planning measures. A Lok Sabha constituency roughly represents about 15 lakh voters. With the 2021 census to be used when the state-wise allocation of Lok Sabha seats comes up for review in 2026, states that have led exemplary family planning programmes to reduce the population now fear a reduction in seats.
What does delimitation mean?
Delimitation means the redrawing of boundaries to give equal representation to equal population in Lok Sabha constituencies and state assembly seats which will represent the change in population. For instance, the delimitation exercise has begun in the now bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir and the seats are expected to go up by seven new seats.
By all accounts, both Jammu and Kashmir will perhaps get an equal share but Jammu’s seats will go up, which will suit the BJP’s rhetoric (the party wins mostly in this region) that it has broken the valley’s domination in the assembly.
Then, at present in Parliament, the five northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh send 204 MPs while the five southern states together only send 128. Will the latter states have their MPs further reduced while the former states are increased in the new delimitation exercise? These are fears expressed by southern political leaders.
Now, how does Prashant Kishor come into the picture?
Kishor has been working over the last few years to try and build an alternative to challenge Modi and the BJP in the general elections, though it must be said that he began his career in 2013 by successfully launching Modi and the BJP in the 2014 general election. His critics say Kishor takes on assignments where the political leader or party is on a winning spree. There may be some truth to this: when Kishor hit a blank with the Congress in the Uttar Pradesh state election in 2017, he said it was a big mistake to be hired by the Congress. But Kishor has also put paid to snide barbs when he won the election handsomely for his latest client, Mamata Banerjee, in the face of Modi-Shah’s money, muscle and state might.
The road to build an alternative to Modi and the BJP at the centre has been rocky for Kishor. In the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, he did not take any political clients though he was the national president of the JDU but he was summarily sacked in January 2020 for anti-party activities on the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
Since 2018, Kishor has been saying that he wants to quit political consultancy and instead connect with the grassroots – read politics. However, he was pulled in to strategise for Jaganmohan Reddy during the 2019 state poll (he was hired in 2017 though) and won Reddy his election. Then came Bihar in 2020, where JDU rebels like Jitan Ram Manjhi and others contacted him but he pulled out as he did not see a victory. Then came Arvind Kejriwal’s Delhi and MK Stalin’s Tamil Nadu elections simultaneously which he helped win for both leaders. But after Mamata’s remarkable victory in April this year, Kishor harped again about how serious he was about quitting as an election strategist and wanting to do something else in life.
Looks like he does not want to stay a backroom boy anymore.
Does Kishor have a gameplan for the coming elections?
As far as the forthcoming state assembly elections go, Kishor seems to have chickened out. He pulled out of his commitment halfway in Punjab when he quit leading former chief minister Amarinder Singh’s campaign strategy team; his critics as usual carp that Kishor could not help the sinking captain. In Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, Kishor has refused to take on any client against the BJP, knowing it’s a losing game, not even the Congress despite the very public outing of his meetings with the Gandhis in the last few months.
So, what were the meetings with the Gandhis all about?
The unusually publicised Gandhi meetings were part of the larger strategy to revamp the Congress party organisation for 2024, and revive its commitment to the founding fathers of the constitution to challenge Modi and the BJP as a serious alternative.
Kishor’s mantra was that no opposition unity is possible without the Congress, which has a national footprint and is in direct contest with the BJP in at least 150 Lok Sabha constituencies. The BJP always had a strike rate of 90 percent as the Congress barely put up a fight, and halving the BJP here would reduce the party to 230 seats, less than the winning figure of 273 seats. The BJP’s defeat lay here.
But recent events in Goa reveal a whole new picture. Has Kishor now dumped the Congress, by all accounts?
Let’s go to the second question first. Perhaps, yes, and the reason is obvious. The flurry of meetings that first started in June and then later by non-BJP affiliated opposition leaders, often hosted but surely led by the NCP’s Sharad Pawar, had participants from the CPIM, AAP, TMC, BJD, RLD and NC under the banner of the Rashtra Manch, an anti-BJP platform set up in 2018 by former BJP heavyweight Yashwant Sinha. The meeting raised curiosity and anticipation because it came after Pawar’s two long meetings with Kishor in Mumbai a few weeks before.
Now, while all the top leaders of the parties involved dutifully attended the meetings, from the RLD’s Jayant Chowdhury to NC’s Omar Abdullah, the Congress was studiously kept out. But soon, Pawar told newspersons that no alliance can take place without the Congress. It was not long before Sonia Gandhi herself called a virtual meeting with opposition leaders in August and her clout was displayed for all to see when the attendees included the chiefs of 19 parties, from Mamata Bannerjee to Uddhav Thackeray to Sitaram Yechury to Sharad Pawar.
But there was one factor right through the opposition talks over the last few months that was niggling non-Congress leaders: the underlying insistence by the Congress leadership that any opposition alliance must have Rahul Gandhi as the face that leads the grouping.
So, what do the Goa events of this week reveal?
After much to-ing and fro-ing between opposition leaders, they concluded that, one, it would be suicidal to pit Rahul as the face against Modi in 2024 because it was tried in 2019 and failed miserably; two, the Congress leadership seems in no mood to repair, recharge and overhaul the party and the organisation from top to bottom as many senior rebel Congress leaders, now called G-23, have also been demanding so far.
In the face of such stagnation and lethargy, Kishor now believes it is time for non-Congress opposition parties to move in and occupy the space that is being left by an unconcerned Congress wherever possible and feasible. The Congress is imploding, say opposition leaders.
It’s the reason why overnight, Kishor’s only loyal client, the TMC, has swooped down in tiny Goa and poached senior Congress leaders in the state, to test the waters of a new kind of opposition alliance politics.
What is the new strategy here?
First, there’s a definitive attempt to create a new face for the opposition, and Kishor seems hell-bent on testing the plucky and fiery Mamata “Didi”, who scorched her way to an impressive victory in the West Bengal poll. The TMC has already lured several top Congress leaders into its fold – from former Congress Mahila chief Sushmita Dev for Assam, to Congress stalwart, two-time former chief minister of Goa, Luizinho Faleiro, to former MLA Lavoo Mamledar, apart from a prominent writer and advocate from the state.
Goa goes to the poll early next year, and Kishor’s new strategy is to fill the political vacuum left behind by a comatose, slow Congress leadership. Forget the Congress, it’s time to go without them, but the "Congress family" will be on the same side, seems to be the new credo. Faleiro’s resignation letter addressed to his voters in his constituency of Navelim in South Goa, is revealing, and harps on this new theme, “I am committed to the ideals and founding principles of the INC that I have espoused though my life. The dream is to bring the divided Congress family that has always played a unifying role in the history of this country, back together to fight the forces of destruction.”
Faleiro highlighted a similar point of bringing back together the divided Congress family as all those parties are founded on the principles of the INC. He wrote in his letter to Sonia Gandhi, “There is scope in the future to align them back and fight the forces of destruction as one family.”
But Kishor’s former client and Mamata’s fave leader, Kejriwal, is also fighting in Goa. Would it not cut into the AAP’s votes, which will help the BJP?
Kishor’s side believes the Congress is finished in Goa and the fight is for the space left by the Congress in the state, and there’s enough for both parties on the same side. Perhaps it has got to do with Kishor’s alienation with the AAP leadership today that he does not care, and also the fact that an ambitious AAP is making forays into the gigantic state of Uttar Pradesh and also Punjab and Uttarakhand, while the coastal state is the perfect testing ground for the TMC’s national ambitions beyond the East.
But is the Congress really finished in Goa? In the last election in 2017, the Congress got 28.4 percent of votes, down by 2.4 percent, but gained eight more seats to be the single largest party with 17 seats. It had slayed the late BJP leader Manohar Parrikar, but could not form the government, as Faleiro hinted in his letter, because of the dubious dealings of Delhi reps in the state.
Is it wishful thinking on Kishor’s part of the Congress rolling over and dying in Goa, or is there more at play here?
So, where does it leave Kishor and his political ambitions, now that he no longer wants to be a political consultant?
This is where Modi’s new Parliament building with 888 seats, with an addition of 345 seats from the present 543, comes in. Will Modi wait till 2026 for the delimitation exercise to determine the new constituencies? After all, his government has gone ahead and unilaterally launched the delimitation exercise in bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir and also the four northeastern states, despite an uproar about its timing and illegality. Why is Modi in such a hurry to get the new Parliament by end-2022, two years before the general election of 2024?
With Modi and Hindutva’s sway in the Hindi heartland, and a sizeable clutch of the additional new seats more likely to come from the dust bowl of India, Kishor's game plan seems to be to smash their clout at least in his home state of Bihar.
There’s intense speculation that Kishor will soon set up a political entity in a few weeks which will (a) capture the imagination of his own state; and (b) form a national umbrella organisation that will group together to fight the 2024 general election. It will not be a third or fourth front – which Kishor believes is a non-starter and a bad word – but where regional parties will first singularly fight in their own states and minimise the RSS-BJP and also move to states where they have a fighting chance against their main opponent.
Will Kishor helm both entities, at the state and national level? The size of the national entity will reflect the size of his political ambition.
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