Man behind Chai pe Charcha leaves BJP – BJP’s strategic error and Prashant Kishor’s political U-turn

As per a news piece that recently appeared in Economic Times, Prashant Kishor, the campaign manager of Modi’s professional support team Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) is switching sides to work for JD(U) and effectively support Janata Parivar this Bihar election. Although CAG, now rechristened Citizens Alliance, constitutes professionals, this looks like a leaf straight out of a politician’s book. But while Kishor makes a U-turn on his loyalty, his actions also leave the BJP with a lot to introspect about.

Modi’s unprecedented victory in the 2014 election can’t be traced back to any single cause. It was brought about by a strong national campaign, great political strategy by the likes of election managers like Amit Shah, mobilization of BJP volunteers and RSS grass root workers, and professionally executed initiatives like Chai pe Charcha, 3D rallies, constituency-level analytics and a powerful digital media campaign.

In the game of politics, it is natural that people tend to showcase their contributions and even exaggerate them to get a bigger share of pie after a victory. But sometimes this tends to backfire like in the case of Kishor. Amit Shah, the current BJP president, is reported to be upset with the way Kishor tried to usurp credit for a lot of Modi’s victories while ignoring the immense contribution of the other arms of the campaign. Further, his arrogance about his proximity to Modi had upset many key leaders of the BJP. What resulted was a complete shunning of the professional campaign team in state elections of J&K, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana and Delhi. In each of these states, the BJP campaign was at best lacklustre compared to the national election, and the costs that BJP had to pay while competing against the professional campaign team of AAP in Delhi are evident.

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While Kishor might have tried to overplay his hand, the BJP is at a big loss by sideling CAG. The future of election campaigns in India is professional management. While the traditional elements will play a key role, all these elements can be weaved together by a professional project management office. The decision to sideline CAG entirely because of a game of political one-upmanship is clearly opting for short term gains and long term losses.

Another error that BJP has made is not acknowledging the contributions of CAG members in the campaign. While Kishor might be the face of the organization, CAG constituted professionals from top-notch professional backgrounds like IITs and IIMs, and top consulting, law, analytics and finance companies of the world who came together to work for Modi and not for Kishor. After the BJP victory in the elections, many of these professionals were hoping for a bigger role in the party or in the government but were ignored because of differences of party leaders with Kishor.

Not just the party, but even the current government could have done with such professional help in many areas. For instance, the current dispensation is miserably failing on the PR front, and looks to be headed for a perception crisis. Its relationship with the media is cold, and the MSM reporting towards the government is negatively biased. This is one of the many areas where professionals could have done a transformational job for the government.

But sensing that no such support from the government was forthcoming, a lot of the top professionals and the brains behind the 2014 campaign left CAG to start-up on their own. More than 80% of the initial founding team has moved out of CAG. While these professionals were disappointed by the lack of acknowledgement from Modi, many of them are extremely unhappy with CAG’s switching loyalties.  As a CAG co-founder from a top IIM puts this recent development in perspective

“We came to work on the Modi campaign. As a result of our combined efforts, Prashant could create a brand name for CAG. If the news reports are true, it is unfortunate that now this brand is being used against the very cause for which we had created it. It is unfortunate that CAG is now supporting outfits like Janata Parivar.”

For Kishor though, the lack of choice is evident in his U-turn from supporting an administrator like Modi to supporting an outfit planning to merge with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD, infamous for creating Jungle Raj in Bihar. “Marta kya naa karta (Clutching at the last straw)”, comments a CAG founder who recently quit the organization for better career opportunities.  “What option was Prashant left with after he was sidelined by Modi? If he supports JD(U) and wins Bihar, he can still hope that Modi will take notice and get him back to his core team. So this decision, though desperate, might yet have some strategy in it.”

If the Janata Parivar with Kishor’s help does manage to clinch Bihar, it will be a loss of face for Shah, while eager journalists will be quick to write off the Modi wave. In the rapidly changing political context, it is essential and urgent that Modi, Shah and team recognize the value that professionals can add not just to BJP’s political campaigns, but also to some of the government’s functions. While for Kishor this opportunism might be an act of political desperation, for the BJP, a loss in Bihar could very well be a self-inflicted wound.


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