Not PK, Congress needs an AK!

Notwithstanding the poor performance in the recently concluded state elections, Congress managed to hog the headlines in India for the past 2 weeks. And the reason for that was the imminent roping in by Congress of Prashant Kishor (PK), who has now clearly made a mark as a master election strategist in India.  After his very successful stint with TMC for the Bengal state elections where he had openly challenged the BJP on its final tally and won that round, PK had announced that he is moving on from being an election strategist for a party. Instead he said he will be associated in politics in a different avatar.

From then on, we have been hearing about his rounds of discussions with the Congress leadership to work with them for future which ultimately culminated last week with an announcement of a breakdown of discussions between Congress and PK. Except for BJP which was PK’s 1st assignment in working with a party in a poll campaign, the other projects that were successful were when PK and his organisation were signed up by a regional party. These regional parties had supreme leaders and PK had access straight to the top. PK’s package was absorbed and implemented by and large without dissent and he could show results. Even during the 1st assignment, PK was working for and with Modi and not for BJP per se.

Secondly, PK’s wins have been where he has been riding winning horses. I still would say his value addition must have helped in bringing a method to the madness of campaign management, data analytics in candidate selection and culling, innovation in campaign tools and last not but the least, handling a monster called the Social Media with deft. Yet, when it was not a winning horse on the race as we saw recently in Goa (TMC) or in UP in 2017 (Congress), PK’s magic didn’t work.

For PK therefore, working with the Congress comes with a substantial risk.  Congress is an elephant of an organisation and in its weakest form presently.  Yet his keenness to work with Congress and help them win by even joining the Congress comes as a huge surprise and circumspection. Now, with the announcement of PK not accepting the invitation of the Congress to join its Empowered Action Group, it seems it is back to square one for the Congress.  So, how does Congress pick up the threads from here and try to win?

There have been suggestions, ideas and models galore from political commentators in the past few weeks for the Congress that include fixing the leadership issue, building the organisation at the grass roots and of course coming up with a credible narrative against the ruling BJP.  In fact some of these have been detailed in the leaked power point deck of PK which he made to the Congress last year. So, I will skip repeating the same points here.

In my opinion, what Congress needs is not a PK but an AK i.e. an Arvind Kejriwal. And I will tell you why.  Among many, I would like to pick up 2 aspects:

  1. To become leader of the ruling party, you should first become and excel as a leader of the Opposition. Today, though Congress is the single largest opposition party, it has singularly failed in being an effective opposition party. How did AK become what he is today – A sitting two time CM and the leader of the party which is emerging as a credible challenger for the BJP? The answer is simple. It all started with AK launching the Anti-Corruption movement in India which shook the nation thereby taking on the ruling party – Congress in 2011. If you recall, the key aspects of that movement were
  • Picking up a subject (Corruption) that touched all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, religion, class, geography and demographics.
  • Having a credible face for the campaign (Anna Hazare).
  • Garnering support from mainstream media that produced a multiplier effect and clever use of social media.

The campaign propelled AK as an effective activist which he used well to launch a party and win Delhi.

In the past 8 years, can you recall an Opposition campaign spearheaded by the Congress or any of its top leaders on a country wide basis?  Whether at the Centre or at the states where Congress is the principal opposition party, the only place it chooses to take on the ruling party is Twitter. Tweets do not win elections by themselves.  If Rahul Gandhi wants to challenge Narendra Modi for the post of Prime Minister, first he should prove himself as an effective and credible opposition leader.

  1. Once AK became the CM of Delhi, he has made a mark by having his own “Arvind Kejriwal model of governance” with its impetus attached to Education, Health care and cheaper utility bills for the Aam Admi. This model has got a thumbs up from the people as seen by his re-election in Delhi with a massive one sided mandate in 2020. Now this model has also got acceptance in another state namely Punjab where AAP recently swept the Congress out of the state.

Herein lies the next ironical tale of the Congress. In some many years of governing so many states, Congress still doesn’t have a model state to boast of as the “Congress model of governance”! What is stopping Congress from adopting all its professed good ideas in states where it rules and turn into a model? Unfortunately, Congress has been struggling to hold to states where they get an opportunity to rule (Punjab, Karnataka, Andhra, Kerala for example)

A consultant like PK can come and only show the mirror to the Congress. But the weight lifting at the political arena has to be done by the Congress leadership, for which you need be an AK. At the Centre, be a credible opposition leader. And in the states ruled by Congress, show case a model of governance, for starters.

Image courtesy: Outlook India

The politics behind political Strategists!

(This piece was written for the news website thenewsminute.com and was first published on the 14th Feb, 2020 and can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/when-poll-strategists-jump-party-party-why-isn-t-there-non-compete-clause-118196

In the business of building political brands in India, Prashant Kishor or PK to many, has now emerged as the undisputed numero uno. In a short period of under ten years, since he started his career with then Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the Gujarat state election in 2011, he has indeed come a long way.

The ease and manner with which he and his organisation Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) have managed to segue from one political party to another irrespective of ideology and geography is now a subject of shock and awe.

Shock because, till he was recently expelled from Janata Dal (United), a BJP ally, PK was its serving Vice President and that didn’t stop West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee from hiring him to help her to fight BJP in her state. And awe because, PK’s client list reads like the who’s who of Indian politics from national parties like BJP and Congress to regional parties like Janata Dal (United), Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and the like.

And very recently, in the south, after YSR Congress (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh, DMK has become the second party to sign up I-PAC and in effect, PK as its political strategist for the Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections in 2021. This news was made public via a tweet by the DMK President Stalin recently. Welcome to the era of commoditization of Indian parties where ideology takes a back seat while marketing, brand positioning, catching eyeballs, mindshare retention and at the end winning, reign supreme.

The non-compete clause

This brings us to the central issue of this piece which is the politics of political strategists. And then there is the question of conflict of interest arising out of aligning with parties with competing ideologies, who are rank competitors. In the business of advertising, brands/companies sign agreements with non-compete clauses with advertising agencies and other strategic consulting companies. Under these agreements, agencies cannot sign up with brands/companies in the competing space not just during the currency of the agreement but also for a mutually agreed cooling-off period. The reasons behind signing such agreements are obvious. No company in this highly competitive era can afford any leak of trade secrets. A brand communication partner would have knowledge of the current and future road map of their clients, their strengths and weaknesses and hence no agreement is complete without non-disclosure clauses and non-compete clauses.

Such clauses have been part of hiring contracts of senior executives as well. Even in the highly competitive world of sports and games, similar clauses exist. I doubt if a coach of one IPL team in a season can sign up as a coach for another team the next season without a cooling-off period. The same holds good in the world of showbiz too.

I have nothing personal against the likes of PK or his organisation but cannot stop wondering why in India’s political space, there is no such non-compete clause while signing on election strategists, looking at the way election strategists have moved on from one party to another. A political party today is akin to a corporate entity and its leader to a brand. So, while companies are so protective about their brand strategies and rightly so, how come, in India we don’t see such sensitivity among political parties and their leaders while collaborating with political strategists?

From in-house campaign manager to professionals

In media interactions, PK has maintained that I-PAC, an organisation which he founded, is on its own now and his role is limited to mentoring and giving wise counsel when needed. This was when someone questioned him on the possible conflict of interest when he became a full-time member of Janata Dal (United) while I-PAC was working with other parties. Now that he has been expelled, it is not known if he is back in I-PAC on a full-fledged role. The I-PAC website carries quite a few references of PK and his work for different political outfits under its own umbrella.

It’s not just PK who is involved with competing parties in the same space. John Arockiasamy, who was associated with PMK in 2016 under the aegis of JPG-PAC, then went on to work with the Congress in Karnataka in 2018.  Reportedly, he has been in discussion with AIADMK in Tamil Nadu to be its political consultant.

Before the advent of PK as a professional election strategist, parties mostly relied on in-house talent for running their campaigns. And they used to work largely with advertising agencies for executing the campaigns in a conventional style just like any other product. For Congress, Jairam Ramesh used to be their election war room manager for years. For BJP, Pramod Mahajan and then Arun Jaitley used to play these roles. So, the possibility of poll strategies getting leaked to rival camp or an espionage operation was limited.

I guess that it is after the advent of digital and social media that we see the outsourcing of campaigns to external agencies by political parties gaining traction. Data analytics is the buzz word today in all fields and so too in election management. This needs specialists and hence parties have no choice but to engage with professional organisations who provide end to end election management solutions from strategy conception to last-mile execution. Execution involves back room warriors who work 24*7 on social media and feet on street who do the booth-level mapping and campaigning.

The potential of social media vehicles like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to enable stories to go viral in no time is unparalleled today. This is a boon and at times a bane. Political consulting firms who have worked with rival political parties have access to a lot of insider information on these parties. And hence there is a real risk of such sensitive information getting leaked online and going viral in no time. Also, I wonder how demographic and psychographic data collected as part of one party campaign is firewalled and not used for another party later on. Memories of Cambridge Analytica, the famed British political consultancy firm that got caught adopting unethical practices have not faded away.

Hence, it is all the more intriguing that political parties in India so far have not considered incorporating non-competing clause while signing up consulting firms. In this politics of political strategists, what are we missing?

Post script: In Tamil Nadu, where films follow politics and vice versa, two big films of last year – LKG and NGK featured election strategists in key roles. A clear sign that these external poll strategists are here to stay.