It isn’t everyday that the news of poll strategy sessions at the residence of a national party president is let out in trickles for everyone to take notice. In the usual course of how such meetings go, it cannot happen if the party doesn’t want it to be known.
And the Congress did want it – the party wanted the brainstorming that took place at 10, Janpath over election strategist Prashant Kishor’s roadmap to the 2024 Lok Sabha poll to play out for public consumption, if not a media spectacle. That’s perhaps the most striking takeaway from the five-day marathon meetings held at party president Sonia Gandhi’s home.
That, of course, leads to the question on why the Congress wasn’t keen on keeping Kishor’s strategy presentation away from the media glare. The reasoning isn’t far to seek. By all indications, the move was shaped by the need to send the message that the party is serious about trying all means to be the national challenger to the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party in the next general election. This was pitched as an assertion of its primacy as the national alternative, or at least the pivot of such an alternative, at a time when it’s being written off as a national force of consequence.
In a way, such political messaging from the Congress is driven by the realisation that the party must be seen as fighting and equipping itself with a larger plan for the battle. This comes close on the heels of a string of demoralising drubbings that the party has suffered in recent assembly polls in different states. More significantly, the party realises that a long spell of being written off as a spent force, and with no road to recovery in sight, may mean that, in the public mind, an array of strong regional forces or smaller parties will grab the mantle as key challenger to the BJP-led NDA.
In any scenario, the Congress wants to show that it isn't going to cede such space without trying to reinvent itself and, more particularly, revise its playbook to contest elections in the current political landscape. In letting the media take notice of its poll strategy recalibration exercise, the party is conveying its intent to practise serious competitive politics.
Amid many claims of access to the content of Kishor's presentation, it isn't definitely known what the strategist proposed. It isn't clear whether it will be known anytime soon either. Some broad inputs, however, can be inferred from the interviews Kishor had been giving after the first round of talks with the Congress last year did not reach a concrete form, after disagreements emerged on three points while agreeing on 18 of 21 broader proposals.
In terms of electoral strategy, Kishor wants the Congress and its possible allies to concentrate on the chinks in the BJP’s electoral reach. In general terms, identifying and focusing on a comfortable mandate – delivering the number of seats – is well-known, albeit a bit vague. More specifically, he had talked about identifying about 200 Lok Sabha seats from east Indian states like West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha to states in the south – Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where BJP’s strength is restricted to a few seats, Karnataka aside.
If the Congress manages to regain ground or even foray into these seats with the help of strong regional allies, it can clinch 150 of them. That leaves it with the task of wresting around 100 seats from BJP stronghold states in the Hindi heartland and states in west India. Kishor proposes it as a doable target for 2024, provided the clarity of purpose is there in challenging the BJP while other adjustment issues with allies are left to post-poll arrangements.
He proposes the order of priorities as follows: challenging the BJP, Congress being the largest beneficiary after a possible poll win, and a Congress name for prime minister. The reverse order of priorities, he argues, wouldn't work well for the objective.
The other broader signal is to revamp the party structure from bottom to top. That would entail a structural shake-up, beginning with a massive membership drive at the grassroots level and then moving upwards – something the Congress hasn’t done for decades.
The other step Kishor has been talking about is obvious but perhaps more challenging – addressing the acute deficit of internal democracy within the Congress. This would again entail engaging party workers in decision-making and execution. But equally crucial would be to inspire workers by revamping bodies like the Pradesh Congress Committees, Congress Working Committees, and positions of secretary and general secretary with more accountability. For a party structure steeped in status-quoist working milieu, this would be a formidable task to accomplish.
Besides the long-term timeframe and the challenges of the task, the proposals for organisational reframing is likely to ruffle many feathers, and might be resisted by a section of party veterans. That doesn't take away from the fact that even some senior leaders have been saying that most of Kishor's proposals are implementable. Some even quipped that though much of his diagnosis of problems wasn't unknown to the party, his analysis was well taken.
This outline is just a sketchy idea and the more important aspects will lie in the flesh and blood of details with which Kishor would have pitched his strategy overhaul to the Congress. But the more contentious part is how Kishor sees himself as a future member of the party. The party top brass, which constituted the committee to look into his proposals, has submitted its report to the party president. While the president’s response will be watched, the Congress is also grappling with the tricky question of what role it could assign to Kishor in the party’s formal set-up. From Kishor’s perspective, especially after burning his fingers in a failed stint as vice-president of the Janata Dal United, securing a position with enough elbow-room will be a priority.
If Kishor is fast-forwarded to a role in the higher echelons of the party or reporting directly to the Congress president, this may not go down well with a section of the party’s senior leadership. The perception of being a parachuted leader also went against him in the JDU. Even if he enjoyed a close rapport with key party leader and chief minister Nitish Kumar, this was bitterly resented by a section of the party's top leadership.
That, however, will likely not stop him from seeking a relatively free hand if he finally takes the plunge from being a poll consultant to a Congress leader.
There are also apprehensions about Kishor's political promiscuity because of his work as a poll consultant with the Indian Political Action Committee, or IPAC, which saw him charting poll strategies for parties as diverse as the BJP, JDU-RJD, AAP, TMC and DMK, to name a few. That’s the baggage of his professional work, which Kishor will be expected to shed while taking a leap of faith towards the Congress. A disassociation from any future work as an IPAC freelancer is expected to be one of the conditions that the Congress would place if Kishor makes up his mind about joining the party.
The subtext to the Congress’s plan of engaging a star poll strategist lies in the party's eagerness in letting its serious intent be known far and wide. This communication of intent reflects how it sees the serious fight for its primacy as the national alternative. The coming weeks will show to what extent it can adjust its structures to the demands of new poll campaign technocracy.
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