A vendor sells kites bearing images of the Indian political rivals Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress' Rahul Gandhi at a store in Bangalore in 2019, when India was holding a general election. Photo: AFP / Manjunath Kiran

Charles de Gaulle was quoted as saying, “Politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.”

Politics is a part of human society, and so are politicians. But what has happened? The world remains the same sorry-go-round. In fact, the misery and pain of the common man go on becoming multiplied every day. 

India is no exception. Looking at the past 74 years of independent India, it is clear that the country has yet to realize the utopian dream of an Indian Century. There are far too many structural hurdles for the country ever to become the defining power in the world. 

One of the main hurdles is the kind of politics done by the politicians. Indian politicians choose politics of polarization over politics of policy.

But Indians want their politicians to be good people and act morally on their behalf. Yet they fail continuously to live up to Indians’ expectations. 

But in the past few years, a new trend has emerged where educated people from non-political backgrounds are entering mainstream politics. The attitudes of young Indians are also very supportive of them. This new change has brought more accountability into the political system and more choices to voters. 

In the last weeks of April, politics in India was turned upside down. In the first major move after the Indian National Congress party’s humiliating defeat in five state elections, Congress president Sonia Gandhi called upon a group of party veterans and election strategist Prashant Kishor to plan the INC’s revival for the 2024 general elections.

Even the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was closely watching the development on the opposition side. It was the first time the INC had accepted at such a high level that it needed external help or guidance to regain its lost ground.

Kishor made a detailed presentation of 600 slides outlining the structural problems in the party, and their solutions. He advised Congress to concentrate on some 370 constituencies, nuance its political messaging, revamp its communication apparatus and address certain organizational weaknesses.

After the presentation and discussions with Kishor, the Congress president constituted an “Empowered Action Group” and invited him to become part of the group with defined responsibility.

There were mixed reactions to this among party leaders and workers. Some of the party workers saw it as a new beginning of meritocracy in the party, while others were upset by the fact that a 137-year-old party was outsourcing its problems to a 45-year-old political strategist.

For these old political starlets, this was the biggest insult that they could heap upon themselves, showing that they were incompetent and disliked by the people, so they had to bring in somebody from outside the party.

After days of public speculation, Prashant Kishor turned down the offer with a pointed remark about Congress’ need for leadership and collective will to fix a deep-rooted structural problem.

Kishor wanted to report directly to party chief Sonia Gandhi, while the party wanted him to be part of the Empowered Action Group. But the bigger question is why Kishor should be given such a bigger role in India’s oldest party, or what Congress has missed without Kishor on its side. 

The Henry Kissinger of Indian politics 

There is no denying the fact that the ideas and space Congress represents are vital for a strong opposition. Currently, there is no other party in India that has such a strong legacy. But Congress has lost more than 90% of the elections it has fought in the last 10 years. It may claim to be the opposition party, but its political strength is weakening day by day.

Under Rahul Gandhi, the party made losing elections a habitual obsession. That was mainly because Gandhi showed very little interest in active politics. The best example is the performance report of Gandhi in Parliament.

In the last eight years, his attendance record in Parliament was close to 56%, way below the national average (79%), and he introduced zero private bills, way below his contemporaries. His only modes of communication with people was Twitter or rallies during elections.

Rahul Gandhi and the party missed an important fact, that India’s politics has changed from idealism to professionalism. Today’s Indian politics is not all about an ideological game, where voters will keep supporting your party just on your ideology and past legacy. Instead, they will also look at the performance of the party’s leader.

The INC’s current situation in the country is just one testimony to this. There are many creditors for this change in voters’ attitudes. But one of the key factors is Prashant Kishor. 

Kishor is a political strategist and election consultant who came into the limelight after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014. He had broken many molds. He was instrumental in bringing Western methods to the election campaign for Modi, including extensive use of social media.

The larger-than-life image of Modi, or “Brand Modi,” was created by Kishor with the help of social media. He articulated his strategies based on the four M’s: Message, Messenger, Machinery, and Mechanics. 

For the first time, even the regional parties came to understand the importance of functioning professionally, especially during elections. These parties have now become conscious of their brand’s image, and those of their leaders.

With the help of modern marketing tools and ground-level feedback mechanisms, Kishor helps parties build a narrative that suits the voter’s perspective. Soon many regional and national parties started referring to him as a kingmaker, thanks to his many successful outings with various political parties. 

His working model is much like that of Henry Kissinger, the American geopolitical consultant and former secretary of state, who redefined US foreign policy by shifting it from idealism to pragmatism.

Kissinger added professionalism to US foreign policy by securing national interests over the abstract principle of maintaining justice and human rights, with the establishment of the petrodollar system and opening of diplomatic relations with China to counter Soviet influence. 

After the failure of talks with Congress, Kishor has hinted on Twitter that he is ready to take a political plunge and may get involved in active politics from his home state of Bihar. On May 5, he announced he would create a platform of like-minded people named “Jaan Suraaj” aimed at transforming Bihar.

Finding a place in Bihar would be tricky for him, given the state’s history of caste-based politics. Only time will tell whether he will be able to add something substantial to Indian political debate, but there is no doubt that he will be one of the key polarizing figures in India’s politics in coming years.

Ravi Kant

Ravi Kant is a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times based in New Delhi. He mainly writes on economics, international politics and technology. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his research and analyses have been quoted by the US Congress and Harvard University. He is also the author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.