Desi Talk - page 22

May 27, 2016
By Douglas Busvine
and Rupam Jain
rashant Kishor, the elec-
tion campaign manager
brought in by Congress
party to reverse its
declining fortunes, knew
his real work would begin when
the party hit rock bottom. It looks
like that moment has come.
The party run by the fabled
Gandhi dynasty, which has led
the world’s largest democracy for
most of its existence, suffered
humiliation last week when it lost
Assam to the ruling Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP) in a state elec-
Congress had controlled
Assam since 2001, and for the
nationalist BJP it was a first. The
race was not even close, under-
lining the crisis facing the moth-
er-and-son team of Sonia and
Rahul Gandhi.
Two years ago they were
eclipsed by Prime Minister
Narendra Modi in a landslide
national ballot won on promises
of economic growth and a strong,
modern India.
While the euphoria of that
time has faded and Modi’s agen-
da has been slowed by stalled
reforms, other state election set-
backs and devastating droughts
hitting rural India, he remains
comfortably the most popular
The challenge for Rahul
Gandhi, the public face of
Congress’ comeback, is to make
up lost ground in time for the
biggest test before a 2019 general
election - the state vote next year
in Uttar Pradesh, home to around
200 million people.
That, and the state of Punjab,
will go a long way to defining who
is the next prime minister; in
2014, the BJP won 71 of 80 parlia-
mentary seats in Uttar Pradesh
and only Sonia and Rahul Gandhi
held theirs for Congress.
Rahul Gandhi declined to be
interviewed for this article, but, in
a series of public appearances
that have become more frequent
in recent months, he sought to
target Modi directly.
“Modi talked about good days
to come but today the country is
reeling under drought and farm-
ers are committing suicide,” he
told a recent “Save Democracy
March” of a few thousand people
in New Delhi. “Modi has nothing
to say.”
In an intriguing twist in the
race for Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi
has invited Kishor to help coordi-
nate Congress’ strategy, the same
man who aided Modi’s march to
New Delhi with a campaign that
embraced modern electioneering
techniques and wowed voters.
Kishor now plans to bring
those, and an intimate knowledge
of the way Modi and the BJP
operate, to a party that is widely
seen as old-fashioned and overly
reliant on the Gandhis.
The 38-year-old, who largely
avoids the public eye but engages
the press and senior party figures
with increasing confidence, has a
backroom team of researchers
analysing census data to more
effectively translate votes into
That may mean targeting a
particular caste or religion, for
Sources close to Kishor, who
worked in health activism before
being taken on as policy adviser
to Modi when he was chief minis-
ter of Gujarat state, said Kishor
had “24/7” access to Gandhi,
although he did not decide his
day-to-day movements.
Kishor is determined to move
away from a system of patronage,
inject a sense of urgency and
bring in fresh faces from the
grassroots level upwards, even if
it means upsetting the Congress
And, reflecting a growing inter-
est in politics rather than focus-
ing on number crunching, Kishor
wants to portray Congress as the
only inclusive national party in
India, the sources said.
The BJP has been accused of
stifling free speech and promot-
ing a Hindu-first agenda to
appeal to the country’s majority
at the expense of significant
minorities, including around 170
million Muslims.
“We are a party of all, for all
and by all,” said Jyotiraditya
Scindia, a Congress parliamentar-
ian, and, in his mid-40s, is of
Gandhi’s generation and one of
the party’s “new guard”.
“The only other national party,
which is the BJP, is not represen-
tative of pan-India, because it is
not of all, it is not by all and it is
not for all.”
Kishor is understood to want
to launch a “new face” to lead the
Uttar Pradesh campaign, which
could be Gandhi, his popular sis-
ter Priyanka or someone else.
Congress officials and Kishor
declined to comment.
Separately, a party source said
this week that Gandhi’s long-
awaited promotion to take over
Congress from his mother might
happen “sooner than you think”.
Kishor, for one, is realistic
about Congress’ chances of
catching up with the BJP.
“We are way behind the
curve,” said a source familiar with
his thinking. “The total collapse
of the party isn’t something we
can ignore.”
In a party steeped in tradition,
secrecy and deference, enthusi-
asm for Kishor is not universal.
“Indian politics is not suscepti-
ble to modern, professional
analysis,” said one former
Congress cabinet member. “You
get it right, you’re lucky; you get it
wrong, you’re unlucky.”
Media have also reported on
the campaign manager’s frustra-
tion at Gandhi’s reluctance to
take quick decisions, and on
speculation that Kishor would
Kishor’s organization, Indian
Political Action Committee, pub-
lished two tweets to address the
As Kishor works behind the
scenes, Rahul is re-emerging on
the national stage to take the fight
to Modi. Congress loyalists say
Gandhi returned a changed man
from a sabbatical in a secret loca-
tion in early 2015.
“He ... discovered his inner
politician,” said Shashi Tharoor, a
prominent Congress lawmaker.
“He’s active in parliament. He’s
more confident. His repartee
shows he can think on his feet.”
Since Kishor joined Gandhi’s
team a few months ago, the
leader has set a frenetic pace,
joining student protesters on the
barricades, showing solidarity
with drought-hit farmers and hit-
ting the campaign trail up and
down the country.
He has landed rhetorical blows
on Modi, taking the floor of par-
liament in March to liken a tax
amnesty announced in the budg-
et to a skin-lightening cream that
turns black money white.
The latest state polls, which
also included Kerala, Tamil Nadu
andWest Bengal where regional
parties expectedly dominated,
suggest that Gandhi’s impact has
been limited so far.
State polls are especially
important for the BJP because
state legislators elect members of
the upper house of parliament
where Modi’s goods and services
tax bill is stuck because it does
not have a majority.
Some of Modi’s closest advis-
ers say they are more worried
about Kishor’s involvement with
Congress than about Gandhi,
given his impact on Modi’s victo-
ry and inside knowledge of the
way he thinks.
But political analysts say Modi
should not lose too much sleep
for now.
The BJP vote is expected to
hold up relatively well in Uttar
Pradesh as things stand, and the
two main regional parties are well
placed to fend off Congress, said
Sanjay Kumar at the Centre for
the Study of Developing Societies
in New Delhi.
“They can’t in their wildest
imagination form a government
in Uttar Pradesh. The race for
Congress is not to be a distant
As for Gandhi, BJP leaders are
“What do you relaunch?”
asked M.J. Akbar, a former
Congress spokesman who joined
Modi’s BJP before the 2014 elec-
tion. “He’s already been launched.
He’s been in an active leadership
position since before the 2014
– Reuters
– that’s all you need to know
With Gandhis At Rock Bottom, Opposition Comeback A Daunting Task
Congress party president Sonia
Gandhi, and her son and the
party’s vice-president Rahul
Gandhi, arrive at a court in New
Delhi, Dec. 19.
“Modi talked
about good days to
come but today the
country is reeling
under drought and
farmers are
committing suicide”
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