Political strategist Prashant Kishor (left) in a file photo with former Uttar Pradesh state Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. Photo: AFP /Chandan Khanna
Political strategist Prashant Kishor (left) in a file photo with former Uttar Pradesh state Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. Photo: AFP /Chandan Khanna

Prashant Kishor, the strategist who helped Narendra Modi win India’s first single-party majority in 30 years with a polished American-style  campaign in 2014, is leaving the political stage. But for how long?

Kishor announced at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad Sunday that he won’t be a political consultant anymore, but his future plans, like his career for the past six years, are shrouded in mystery.

“I will not be doing any campaign in the 2019 general elections in the manner and form that I have done in the past,” he said as students hooted and clapped. “I want to go and work on the grassroots. I have so far worked with leaders, now I want to work directly with people.”

When moderator Sankarshan Thakur asked “which grass?” Kishor replied that it could be Gujarat or his home state, Bihar. It was in Gujarat that the former United Nations health official first emerged into the political spotlight, after Modi — then the state’s chief minister  — asked him to solve its malnutrition problem.

Taken on as Modi’s political aide, Kishor quickly broke the political mould as a backroom strategist. Usually seen in a T-shirt and jeans rather than the regulation white kurta-pyjama so beloved by Indian politicians, he set about modernising the approach to elections.

In 2014 Kishor brought hundreds of young professionals together in a group called the Citizens for Accountable Governance that recruited thousands of volunteers across India through Facebook to work for the Modi campaign. The first time social media had been used on such a scale in politics, it was a throwback to the 2008 US presidential campaign by Barack Obama.

“Every politician I have worked with since then has used 2014 as a reference point,” said Kishor, who has worked across party lines with politicians of different hues to instil more professionalism in politics. And through it all, he has remained an evasive background figure.

Moving out of the shadows

But even though election campaigning in India has now come to be associated with social media, data and technology, Kishor downplayed their impact. “It’s the froth on the coffee,” he said. “Eight hundred million people in India earn less than Rs100 a day and they’re not on Facebook. They have the same votes as the 300 million active on social media.”

Kishor has been a social media wizard, speechwriter, pollster, event organizer and strategist, and his legacy will live on thanks to his army of young professionals. The army is now called the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), another throwback to American politics, and will follow its own path as Kishor takes a new direction.

Many of Kishor’s ex-colleagues have also left him to start their own political consultant firms across India, a fact that makes him proud. Yet none is Prashant Kishor, India’s only American-style political consultant and a person with the ability to transform a politician and make a party leader run around to his plans. He is the director, and the politician the actor.

Such a culture of political consultants has been normal in the United States and other western countries for decades, but there has been some resistance to the concept in India. The fact that Kishor is quitting is, in a way, an admission of defeat and acknowledges his failure to change how Indian politicians operate. He may be ahead of his time, or perhaps Indian politics does not need political consulting?

Then again, maybe Kishor has political ambitions of his own.

A man ahead of his time?

Kishor’s difficulties in changing entrenched ideas go back to the period after Modi became prime minister, when he tried to establish another group of professionals who could accomplish what they had during the poll campaign: harness the energy of young people. This was meant to be an extension of the prime minister’s office, helping to deliver government schemes and services by decentralizing power.

It didn’t take off. “Modi was new in office and I was in a hurry, and perhaps his advisors felt lateral entry of professionals was too controversial an idea so early in his tenure,” Kishore said Sunday.

He denied that he parted ways with Modi because of a falling-out with aide Amit Shah, who became president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But it is well known that there was friction between Kishor and the BJP’s top leadership, which was wary of his access to the prime minister. Kishor then worked with chief minister Nitish Kumar in Bihar, helping him beat the BJP in 2015 assembly elections.

Having shown he could defeat a Modi-driven campaign, Kishor crossed over to India’s main opposition party, the Congress, helping it to win Punjab assembly elections in 2017. However, the party was humbled in the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Kishor blamed Congress: “When your plans can’t be executed it ends in disaster,” he said, adding that he parted ways with the party because he was not on the same page as its president, Rahul Gandhi. “He remains a friend,” Kishor added. As at the BJP, there was a lot of tension between Kishor and the party faithful, who resented Congress having an outsider as a consultant and Gandhi having his own private Super PAC, as they are called in American politics.

Kishor revealed he has been meeting with Modi and Shah since last October, but is not working for them in any campaign. He is perhaps too high-profile now to be a backroom strategist.

Nobody is buying Kishor’s denials that he will be entering politics. After all, he ditched his T-shirt and jeans for the Hyderabad appearance so he could wear a white kurta-pyjama, just like any other Indian politician. The only question now is, which party will he join?