Devender Singh

The buzz around Prashant Kishor’s engagement with the Gandhi family and the Congress party refuses to die down, even as the party’s top leadership is currently in Udaipur as part of a three-day Chintan Shivir (brainstorming session), without Kishor in attendance. Kishor’s engagement with the top leadership in April – which took place at the residence of Congress chief and included the two Congress chief ministers Ashok Gehlot and Bhupinder Baghel – had again perked the ears of the politically inclined.

The question on everyone’s mind was: would Sonia Gandhi accept or decline Kishor’s pill for the Congress’s revival to make it an election-ready mean machine?

The latest development in this regard is that Sonia Gandhi formed a high-level working group – the Empowered Action Group, 2024 – and offered Kishor a position in this group, which he politely declined

While it is true that Kishor comes with the baggage of somewhat ambiguous and contradictory political alignments, I still feel that Sonia Gandhi should have taken his gambit. I list my reasons for thinking so below. 

First, Sonia Gandhi is not in the pink of her health. Her advanced age makes it difficult for her to tour the country far and wide, regularly and vigorously, which the Congress so desperately needs. If this had been the case ten years ago, maybe she could have again taken the onerous task of resurrecting the party upon herself but at present, it seems increasingly impossible for her to make that arduous journey. 

Second, Rahul Gandhi, despite all his sincere (or otherwise) efforts and attempts, has not been able to make much of an impact politically or electorally. He still comes off as a reluctant and awkward politician. Time, for him and for the Congress party at both the national and state levels, is running out.

Sonia Gandhi needs to establish the Congress as a party of and for the future and Rahul Gandhi as a leader of substance and import before it is too late. With every election defeat, the pressure on Rahul Gandhi to prove himself a viable and reliable leader has been mounting.  

Third, the Congress party has not been able to make a dent in the ecosystem that Prime Minister Modi and his party have assiduously created around him. Nor have they been able to compete with his agenda, which employs all possible tactics and involves like-minded stakeholders, including the Sangh Parivar and media, traditional and modern.

Kishor played an important role in creating that edifice, if not the entire infrastructure of this ecosystem. Who better than him to challenge it with a counter ecosystem?

That brings us to the fourth point. The Congress party has high hopes from its ‘conveyor-belt model’ of politics; wherein it thinks that people will vote the party back into power when they become unhappy with the incumbent party, which the Congress believes they eventually will.

This might have been the case in the past when the Congress was replaced by ragtag alliances or even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its earlier avatar. But this is not happening in the current scenario, and there is a very real danger that this inertia will start looking like paralysis. 

Finally, the terra firma of politics in India (and elsewhere, too) has changed. Politics has been reduced to ‘politicking’ and governance to electioneering.

Politics has become a 24×7×365 enterprise where all that matters is the management of the projection and perception of image. The media’s role, especially that of electronic and social media, has assumed vital significance. What has become amply clear in recent years is that the Congress has consistently failed to mount any effective challenge to the domineering narrative of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.

The Congress’s noteworthy campaigns, such as ‘Nyay’, Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon’ and several others have lacked the requisite force due to an absence of a critical mass of supporters on the ground as well as that of a concerted, cohesive media strategy. The party’s narratives have thus failed to create a buzz in either the popular media or among the general populace. 

What we know from what has come out in the public domain is that Kishor wants the Congress to gun for 350-plus seats and forge strategic alliances with like-minded players and parties in rest of the parliamentary seats, especially in those where other parties are strong and where the Congress is not a major contender.

Here, too, Kishor’s assistance will come handy due to his previous engagements with these players and parties. Kishor’s good offices with Sharad Pawar and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP); Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress (TMC); K. Chandrashekar Rao and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and others will help forge such strategic alliances across states. The Congress can gain through such arrangements, without other parties feeling overwhelmed by it. 

If the Congress does not embrace Kishor’s proposals and plan, Kishor will not abandon his own efforts of forging alliances with political parties. He will do so regardless, and the Congress will be left out. The success of such such an alliance will prove to be in the next parliamentary elections cannot be ascertained with much accuracy just yet. What can be said for certain, however, is that the Congress would be losing out on an important opportunity.

The Congress has to come out of its ‘politics as usual’ mode. It needs an overhaul; a rejuvenation, to become a viable alternative for voters and Kishor’s prognosis seems to be the way to go by.

Though the current episode has ended in a stalemate, with posturing and bargaining from both sides, I believe that we have not heard the last word on this, and that the two sides are highly likely to engage again.

If and when the next round of discussions with Kishor take place, Sonia Gandhi should take charge of the recalcitrant Congress leaders and take Kishor up on this gambit in order to make the Congress a viable political option once again. 

This article was first published in The Wire as The Gandhis Should Accept Prashant Kishor’s Political Gambit on 15 May 2022.

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About the Author

Devender Singh

Devender Singh is the Former National Program Officer (Population & Development), UNFPA India (2015- 2021) and a Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI.