In the middle of July this year, images went viral of political strategist Prashant Kishor entering Rahul Gandhi’s residence in central Delhi.
It was the first indication that Kishor, considered the architect of a number electoral victories, mainly of regional parties, was in talks with India’s main opposition party, making for dizzying headlines.
At the time, sources familiar with the developments told NDTV that the July meeting was not the first between Mr Kishor and the Gandhis, and that both sides were working on a arrangement where “PK”, as he is known, would not serve as a political consultant, but, in fact, formally join the Congress. All this was playing out weeks after PK, in an exclusive interview to NDTV, said that he was retiring as an electoral strategist. So, the fact that he was considering joining politics did not seem unviable; in fact, it seemed like a natural progression from that announcement made on NDTV.
The arrangement that the Congress and PK were trying to decide on, NDTV was told, was to work on ‘something bigger’ than just the upcoming state elections, an ambitious plan to use PK’s skills to revive the faltering fortunes of the Congress in the run-up the 2024 general election.
And then suddenly, without explanation, things went cold.
One explanation for why lies in the revelation of a former Chief Minister of Goa, Luizinho Faleiro, who crossed over earlier this week from the Congress to the Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) just months before the coastal state votes for its next government. Speaking to NDTV, Mr Faleiro said that it was PK and his group, I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee), which had approached him to switch to Mamata Banerjee’s party. “Of course, he had approached me. Just a few days back,” he said.
At a press conference in Panaji, Mr Faleiro was even more explicit. “Believe it or not , I never met them (Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee). They are great leaders. But I did not meet them. I met I-PAC, I met Mr Prashant Kishor of I-PAC. Just before I took the decision, we had the interaction.”
If Mr Faleiro is to be believed, PK was and is helping expand the political footprint of the TMC in areas where the Congress has been enervated, even while he was in talks with the Congress over reviving its fortunes. This possible conflict of interest, some in the Congress say, may have contributed to a certain cooling off in pursuing matters with PK. (Further evidence of the continuing deep ties between PK and the TMC surfaced when it emerged last week that Prashant Kishor, a native of Bihar, was registered as a voter in Bhabhanipur in West Bengal, the constituency being contested by Mamta Banerjee for election to the state legislature).
PK’s camp, however , points out that he had registered as a voter in Bhabhanipur earlier this year before the state election as a preemptive move after reports suggested that the BJP was considering a move to oust him and his outfit during the poll period from West Bengal on grounds that they were outsiders. PK’s outfit is also meant to be working to spearhead the TMC’s push in the North East; recently, Congress’ Assam MP Sushmita Deb became another high-profile leader to join the TMC.
There is a trust deficit, a Congress source told NDTV.
Sources close to PK maintain that this is not quite the case, and that I-PAC’s continuing work with its other clients was discussed at length in his talks with the Congress leadership. The reason for the pause in talks, as per these sources, is almost solely to do with a disagreement over the timing of PK’s entry into the Congress: while the Congress leadership is keen for him to join at once, and begin work on the coming assembly elections in February in states including Uttar Pradesh, PK is adamant that he will only join after those elections. The reason, it was argued, is that the February elections are too close at hand, not giving PK enough time to make the Congress battle-ready in those states. Prashant Kishor reportedly told the Congress top brass that he will be fully on board for all the elections after February, up until and including the big Lok Sabha battle in 2024.
The other reason for the possible standstill in the PK-Congress talks could be reservations of some within the Congress over PK’s designation and mandate.
A four-member Congress panel (comprising Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, AK Anthony, KC Venugopal and Ambika Soni), meant to advise Sonia Gandhi on political matters, is said to have sought the views of a large section of the Congress’ top leadership on PK’s entry. While most were said to be in favour, some leaders are believed to have suggested that PK’s designation and role be confined only to managing elections.
This, sources close to PK maintain, runs contrary to his talks with the Congress leadership, in which both sides reportedly were in favour of a more sweeping role for PK, one in which he would have been empowered to intervene in almost all aspects of decision-making within the party.
Regardless of the conflicting claims, it appears that for now, what was a potential headline-making partnership between India’s beleaguered Grand Old Party and a rising political upstart, has come to a standstill.
(Arvind Gunasekar is a senior correspondent with NDTV.)
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