From Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014 to the Nitish-Lalu triumph in 2015 and delivering Assam to the BJP in 2016, young and very professional strategists have startled politicians and the media, reports Kavita Chowdhury.
When the first-ever Bharatiya Janata Party government in Assam was sworn into office on May 25, it was not only its workers and supporters who rejoiced.
Two ‘backroom hands’, Shubhrastha and Rajat Sethi, basked in the glory of that hard-earned victory. For the two political strategists, it had been more than a poll battle. It was a test case, to establish that professional (and young) strategists can help win an election. The successes of Lok Sabha 2014, Bihar 2015 and now Assam have put the spotlight on these professionals, who, with their analytics, data crunching, marketing skills and innovative ideas, are steering political parties to electoral victory.
Labelled a “PK (Prashant Kishor) clone”, for journalist-turned-strategist Shubhrastha, it was vital to break out of her mentor’s shadow. Teaming with Rajat Sethi, a public policy graduate from Harvard and an IITian (Indian Institute of Technology), she joined Team BJP, for “ideological reasons.” “I didn’t want to jump bandwagon”, says Shubhrastha, asserting how Narendra Modi’s political vision continued to motivate her, and making her distinct from team Prashant Kishor, which has no fixed political affiliation.
She says it was Narendra Modi’s image and the BJP that had inspired her in the first place in 2014 and continues to inspire her. Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee has till date offered its services to the BJP; then the Janata Dal-United with its alliance partners Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress in Bihar, and now to the Congress in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Shubhrastha had been an integral part of Team Prashant Kishor since its inception; it was called Citizens for Accountable Governance then. However, after the Bihar poll campaign, she parted ways.
The Rajat Sethi-Shubhrastha duo was responsible for conceptualising the ‘Assam Nirman’, a series of town hall-type dialogues with the public. “It was a unique kind of citizen engagement, where we built a dialogue with the people and tried to reflect the people’s aspirations in it. This resulted in the ‘vision document’ for the BJP, launched by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley -- there was no manifesto for these polls,” says Shubhrastha.
She credits the party’s national general secretary, Ram Madhav, for a large measure of the success of their strategy in Assam. “We were given a free hand and were in constant touch with him throughout the campaign.”
Giving insights into some of the behind the scene activities, she says, “We mined election data for the past five to six elections for every constituency. We also studied the socio-economic indicators of health and education, we even filed and got information through RTI responses.” Shubhrastha asserts it is intensive data crunching activities like these by professional election strategists that is making election management so different nowadays.
They supplemented the data with intensive surveys at the grassroots in constituencies, carried out through 400-odd paid volunteers. Incidentally, volunteers in the team were paid, unlike in IPAC where only core team members are paid; even Prashant Kishor works for free.
Earning their spurs by handling the campaign for a party with entrenched seniors like the BJP and making history by winning Assam, the Shubhrastha-Rajat duo has proved their detractors wrong. Presently in the US for a fellowship, Shubhrastha says she is extremely grateful to the BJP’s leadership and her “ideological mentor Ram Madhav”, for “giving us this opportunity to experiment and implement plans”.
Lawyer-turned-election strategist Vinesh Chandel, 28, sees his role as “essentially trying to bring some sense to the chaos of the electoral campaign”. Chandel is one of the co-founders of IPAC and is presently heading the IPAC team strategising the Congress’ campaign for the Uttar Pradesh polls in 2017. Prashant Kishor (‘PK’) continues to be the ‘mentor’ for IPAC, both in its Uttar Pradesh and Punjab campaigns.
For Chandel, now based out of Lucknow, the “adrenaline rush” that got him hooked to election management in the first place still keeps him going. It’s thanks to the professional corporate kind of set-up of bodies like IPAC, says Chandel, that a lawyer like him can interact with other professionals, MBAs and BTechs, and bring their skill sets to make a difference to election campaigning.
Chandel is an alumnus of the National Law Institute University, Bhopal, and even practised as a lawyer before deciding to take a sabbatical and jump into this new field. “I do not believe in aligning myself to any one political party but election strategising is an alternative to joining a party and enables me to contribute to the political field with my ideas.”
Recalling their successful out-of-the-box ideas and campaigns that hit bull’s-eye for the Nitish Kumar campaign in Bihar last year, Chandel says Kumar had initially been extremely sceptical of the power of social media. He had no faith in the “chidia” (bird) Twitter or even Facebook.
However, when the young team leveraged Twitter to throw up a volley of provocative questions in real time to PM Modi, carefully timing it between his flight taking off from Delhi and then landing in Bihar for an election rally, giving him no time to consult his research team, it got them the desired results. A “ruffled” PM Modi commented on the “Bihari DNA” of Nitish Kumar in his speech, opening the breach for team IPAC to step in; they targeted Modi for insulting the “Bihari asmita” (self-respect), encouraging Bihari voters to send to the PM strands of their hair and nail clippings to test for himself the Bihari DNA. No wonder then, that Nitish Kumar was then convinced of social media’s ability to grab eyeballs, becoming an ardent user of Twitter and Facebook.
Talking about the latest project, managing the Congress campaign in UP, he says: “Despite people dismissing it as an impossible task, we believe that what works in Congress’ favour is that other parties (Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party) have not fulfilled their promises in the past 27 years. We will carve out the campaign stressing that Congress needs to be given a chance.”
Chandel says it is still early days for the UP campaign and the team is still engaged in gathering their “on the ground intelligence”. But, he is confident of bringing back the Congress in power.
Interestingly, the tag line on their e-mails state, “There’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance… It’s called humility.”
Rishi Raj Singh
For the chemical engineer from IIT, turned investment banker-turned political strategist, Rishi Raj Singh, 26, ‘“monotony” of the job led to a rapid change of profile. In his present role as strategist, the “challenging and dynamic nature” of his job is like an adrenaline rush. He says, “Nothing can compare to the feeling when the slogan that you brainstormed and created is voiced by thousands, like it happened during the Bihar campaign with ‘Phir ek baar, Nitish Kumar’.”
Singh was part of the successful Bihar campaign last year. In his present assignment at IPAC, where he is also one of the directors, he is heading the team for the Congress’ campaign for the Punjab 2017 polls.
Talking about the intrinsic risk involved in this nascent field in India, he says matter-of-factly, “Every start-up comes with its own risk. Our outfit, too, is similar to a start-up.” He asserts the 2015 polls clearly validated the significant impact of political strategists on elections.
The arrival of political strategists like Rishi, appears to have thrown ad agencies out of business, as far as election publicity goes. Distinguishing themselves from the latter, Singh says, “Ad agencies take a brief from a political party, design a publicity campaign and give you options to choose from; they are vendors. We, on the other hand, take 360-degree responsibility for a campaign, from training party workers and making them poll-ready to deciding on seating arrangements at events. It is all planned and taken care of by us.”
Singh says, in simple words, their task is “Creating a brand leader who has accountability” but hastens to clarify, “Nobody can replace politicians; we act parallel to the political set-up.”
In Punjab, where he is in the thick of things, projecting the Congress’ (‘Captain’) Amarinder Singh as their chief ministerial face, he says the thrust of their campaign is personality-centric, much like the American presidential elections.
The team has drawn a lot of flak from the Congress’ political adversaries for its ‘Coffee with Captain’ interactions. While their detractors insist the theme is flawed, Singh asserts their aim was to reach out to the youth.
“The youth is a sizable votebank and they need to be made aware of Captain’s achievements as CM in 2002-2007. Through our intensive ground surveys, we found youth hang out in cafes and then we came up with the idea of Coffee with Captain,” says Singh.
As a young person himself, he says confidently, he has seen the kind of appeal the Captain has evoked among youth, unlike their Aam Aadmi Party adversary which is yet to launch a face for the Punjab polls.
Does he regret, for even a day, the lucrative job he gave up as an investment banker in Credit Suisse? Pat comes the reply: “I took a break of a month or two after the Bihar polls but was soon impatient to get back to experience the kick of real time election management.”