By Jagdish Rattanani
Prashant Kishor is the focus of political attention again as he talks to join or at least work with the Indian National Congress, while at the same time signing to work for KCR in Telangana. For the Congress and a host of political forces, he appears to come across as a saviour, offering the hope of reviving the political fortunes of those being weighed down by the BJP’s mix of ugly communal politics and superior management of perceptions. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot asked for Kishor to be embraced by the Grand Old Party saying he has become a “brand” while some others still hesitate to work with a new star recruit who wants to call the shots.
This one-man obsession, the desperate hunt for a performer to rescue sinking political fortunes and bring back lost friends, signals the extreme frustration of the Opposition, and in particular the Congress, at not being able to make much headway in upping their political game. The focus on what Kishor will or will not do as he prepares his plans for the Congress mirrors the party’s pain and the dilemma that flows from lack of clarity on the path and boldness in resolve as it seeks to revive itself. Should the Congress go all out against the communalism being stoked, or should it play a “soft” Hindutva card or jump positions as issue after issue is stoked up? Should it, can it really, jettison one-family control of the party machinery? The answers should be obvious but they are not at all obvious to the party and its leadership.
On one hand, the party is willing and open to change – there appears to be no other option. This necessity is making it talk to someone who called for an end of the culture of sycophancy to the first family that is in the fabric of the party. Worse, those who have spoken against the “high command” are the very ones who, minus any political base, have occupied political positions because they, too, paid obeisance at the durbar – these internal voices of change carry no credibility. On the other hand, the idea that one outside star, howsoever savvy or smart, can deliver the Congress form all its ills, is also a mirror to the political emptiness that has enveloped the party, much battered and emptied of inner energy in the surcharged climate of today. That emptiness leads to reliance on one hero who is after all a backroom manager. He can at best strategize the campaign, draw up the messaging and help plan the execution. It may work (ex: TMC in West Bengal) or not (ex: TMC in Goa). In many senses, this is a consulting solution to a bread and butter problem for the Congress.
The Kishor-led rescue project then looks like an abdication of sorts by the party, akin to outsourcing to a third-party vendor to deliver a low-cost solution to a burning problem that it does not know how to handle. But if the political reservoir has gone empty, how much can one Prashant Kishor pump in to revive and rejuvenate such a party? In fact, how can any one person bring to bear on a 137-year-old, historic party, unless all it had was gone, and the party remains only in name, looking for brands, and saviours and whatever other straws it may find.
What makes it more difficult is that Kishor is in politics but he is not a political leader of the kind, say, Kanhaiya Kumar, is – in the thick of the hurly-burly of politics, been to jail, taken aim straight and sharp at Narendra Modi. Kanhaiya Kumar joined the Congress last year but has gone surprisingly mute since then. His stinging attacks on the BJP and Hindutva politics, which managed to force the BJP on the backfoot like few other leaders could, are gone. In effect, the Congress has silenced a powerful anti-BJP voice by taking him in and putting some constraints on him, it might appear, or at least not letting him thrive.
Yet, the Kishor option may look tempting from the point of view of a diminished Congress. He is credited with having brought electoral rewards for parties of various hues. And he himself is grounded and will likely agree that his role need not be overstated in the larger and complex game of playing politics and winning elections. It is also true that an outside analyst who can bring some sense of objectivity will be helpful to a party that is known to brook no dissent. The Congress can benefit from some ruffling of the feathers and from some plain speaking that an outsider can do.
But beyond that, the party needs something else to revive its fortunes. That something is not stratagems but some simple commitment to a clean government, a strong stand against corruption and communalism, and young faces who can work with energy and promise. It needs to learn that one family rule, a party headed by a fifth- generation dynast, as Ramchandra Guha once put it, is no longer feasible. It needs to recognise that it has to stand on principles and fight for the common person.
In this, the Congress faces an uphill task given that corruption charges still tend to stick to the party, running right up to its leadership. The latest example is the charge that the party allegedly sold the nation’s highest civilian honour to a criminal banker. The charge by the now-jailed Rana Kapoor, the former CEO of Yes Bank who of course carries zero credibility, has been refuted by the party but this is the kind of mud that the Congress will find coming at it again and again.
Messages are difficult to stick but those that stick are not easy to unstick.
In 2010, some 18 months after Barack Obama became President, more people thought he was Muslim (18%) than those who thought so in the previous three years (11%-12%), according to Pew. This is in the face of ugly propaganda by his opponents, and even after Obama, an extraordinary communicator, had the national stage as President. The late Colin Powell, a military general and a respected Republican, had risen in Obama’s support to say this: “Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be President? (On NBC ‘Meet the Press’, 2008). The Pew numbers showed all this to be of no help in the face of what people wanted to believe.
The only option is to stick to the message and to live by it – consistently, creatively, and by showing commitment. It has to be a hard grind and the people who run this marathon need to be made of a different mettle. That is precisely the change that the Congress runs away from, because it has lost what the historian Lewis Mumford called “an inner go”; what we see now is “a mere holding on” – not the sort of problem that lends itself to a consulting solution.
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (e-mail: [email protected])