With her poll strategist this time, Didi might be missing the wood from the trees!

A closer look at master poll strategist Prashant Kishores recent miscalculations, and why Mamata Banerjee should be careful not to burn bridges


Undoubtedly, it was a great and overwhelming victory in the whole of Bengal. Against the entire might of the Central government, the financially and politically powerful Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) electoral machinery, with an Election Commission apparently toeing its line, accused by the Trinamool of open bias and prejudice. And with all the money and muscle power, pomp and show, led by the two biggies of the BJP-led regime in Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah.

Both of them literally parked themselves in Bengal, their helicopters eternally hovering over the sky in the rural and urban landscape, like a sign of their unprecedented power and privilege, though the crowds at their fledgling rallies became thinner and thinner, especially in rural areas. Indeed, the rallies by Yogi Adityanath were a damp squib, empty chairs and empty maidans, in once case only cows hanging out.

And Prashant Kishore, yet again, proved to be right. A management and electoral strategist par excellence, he had predicted much before the campaign began, that the BJP will not cross 100 seats in the Bengal assembly polls. All astute ground reporters, who were not overwhelmed by the hype and hyperbole of the BJP propaganda, as some high-profile journalists from Delhi on quick visits to the state were so prone to, soon found out that the ground reality is quite in contrast to the high voltage campaign and sloganeering by the Hindutva party.

Reporting for SabrangIndia, this reporter covered the rural interiors and observed and listened to the people, especially women. He found that their hearts were beating in a different manner in rural Bengal, and the BJP deception was just what it was – organised deception.

Indeed, while not playing the prophet psephologist, SabrangIndia reported that the ground was slipping everyday from under the BJP’s feet, and Mamata Banerjee on a wheel chair was succeeding on the planks of her massive welfare and development programmes, especially in rural areas, and especially among women, the marginalized working class, and the minorities.

Indeed, across Bengal, in both rural and urban areas, the secular stream within Bengal’s intellectual, radical and progressive inheritance, retaliated very strongly against the BJP propaganda of hate politics – branding people from Bangladesh as infiltrators and outsiders. Almost all the celebrities – actors, writers, filmmakers, artists and academics rallied against the politics of hate. Videos and songs reasserting the radical, secular and aesthetic inheritance of Bengal was resurrected, reaching out to millions.

Surely, Bangladesh, formerly East Bengal, was never considered an enemy nation in West Bengal, with its shared cultural, political and social history, and the deep bonds of nostalgia and longing which continues beyond the Partition. Surely, refugees were never treated as outsiders in Bengal, neither during the 1971 war of liberation in Bangladesh, nor thereafter. Instead, they were reintegrated and respected for their dogged stoicism, hard work and resilience in a new land, with its inherited history and shared borders and collective consciousness, especially by the communists in post-Independence India. The anti-Muslim propaganda among the post-1981 refugees, now legitimate citizens with proper papers, was therefore only marginally successful in a state where the secular ethos has been entrenched even during the pre-colonial times.

Truly, Prashant Kishore’s analytical prediction proved right in the final analysis. So did the ground reportage of SabrangIndia. Women were the key, especially rural women. Modi’s crass ‘Didi-o-Didi’ call not only boomeranged, but was also viewed with huge disgust and repulsion by the women in Bengal. Even the entire city of Kolkata voted overwhelmingly against the BJP – they could not win even a single seat in the mahanagar. The Left and Congress were decimated, even in traditional Congress strongholds like Malda. Khela Hobe was finally and fully victorious, despite bad and biased umpiring, and hate politics was roundly defeated – showing the secular way to the entire country.

Showing the way, that is what the farmers and their leaders asserted collectively at the packed Press Club of Kolkata before the campaign began in the state. They said that the freedom fighters and revolutionaries of Punjab and Bengal, among other regions, fought against the repression of the British; only they, therefore, can bring down the BJP. “Destroy its arrogance. Bring it to its knees. If Bengal defeats the BJP, the farmers’ struggle will get a big boost. And the entire country will find a way to win the battle in 2024. Bengal should show the way,” said the farmer leaders.

Predictably, the entire country rejoiced the victory of the secular forces in Bengal. When Mamata Banerjee visited Delhi for the first time after the victory, she was greeted overwhelmingly, including by the secular media. There arrived a sudden buzz that she, alone, with her street fighter’s instinct, guts and fearlessness, and her steadfast and straight fight against Modi, can defeat the formidable BJP machinery backed by the corporates, in 2024. That she, indeed, should lead the opposition alliance.

Journalists said that even in the bureaucracy and among the corporates there was a hush-hush whisper that Mamata will mark the nemesis of Modi. That a rattled, solitary and ageing Modi has lost all ground and credibility, and that people are really looking for a real, authentic, fighting and honest secular alternative. And Mamata fits the bill in a general scenario comprising the TINA factor – there is no alternative!

Meanwhile, Prashant Kishore, still working with Trinamool Congress, declared that he will leave his established and successful trade of electoral battles and strategic management and marketing of political parties during the polls. It was quite surprising given that he has had a reasonably impressive track record of success with successive political parties, from Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), Jagan Reddy’s YSRC in Andhra Pradesh, to Amrinder Singh’s Punjab, among other political parties. He was the key in masterminding the victory of Narendra Modi in 2014 in the parliamentary polls with his innovative poll gimmicks.

Come to think of it, he was truly a brilliant mercenary, hitting the jackpot with his team and sheer electoral acumen, getting the correct pulse on the ground, winning one poll after another. Ethics and ideology can be damned.

That is why it came as a surprise when he joined JD(U), in alliance with the BJP in Bihar, with Nitish Kumar way behind in terms of his number of MLAs when compared to the BJP’s, and thereby playing second fiddle, despite being the chief minister. This, when this same man marked another brazenly opportunist U-turn by going against the BJP in the earlier assembly polls, because he wanted to suddenly cultivate the secular image yet again— he was given the impression that he is prime ministerial material and can take on Modi. He even refused to join Modi on a dias of political leaders in the NDA alliance.

Despite claiming to be a so-called socialist, true to his shifty character, he had earlier betrayed Laloo Yadav’s RJD, by toppling the secular government in alliance. Nitish was junior partner in terms of numbers and yet Laloo gave him the CM’s chair. Surely, Laloo, despite the hounding, arrests and long terms in prison under the Modi regime, has not compromised ever with the Hindutva party. He, along with the communists and Congress, remain the only three formations which have refused to align with the BJP or NDA at any cost over the years.

Even in alliance with the BJP, the JD(U) seemed decimated with a rising Tejeshwi Yadav leading the opposition battle, and they really would not have won against the RJD’s Mahagatbandhan, if those disputed last few seats had gone to the RJD alliance. Clearly, there were unconfirmed reports and allegations that these last few seats were given away to BJP, often with very thin margins, due to some covert hanky panky. 

In these circumstances, Prashant Kishore joining the party of Nitish, and that too as vice-president, with Nitish giving him certain conspicuous powers, while showering public praise, reflected for the first time the political ambitions of this poll strategist. Sources said that Amit Shah recommended him to Nitish. In the course of this sudden shift, he lost his way; he criticized the CAA and Nitish dropped him. He was sacked.

Soon after the decisive victory against the BJP in Bengal, he openly criticised Amit Shah, saying that his electoral skills are overestimated, and that he has lost one election after another where he has called the shots. And then came his secret and high-profile meetings with the Gandhis: son, daughter and mother.

Apparently, he gave a powerful and effective presentation of how the party can be revived organisationally in the grassroots. And that he will do it if given extraordinary powers and if he is admitted in a top position in the hierarchy. Besides, he should have a decisive say in ticket distribution.

The project did not take off – insiders, including veterans, did not agree. A man without ideology cannot suddenly become a big leader in Congress, it was stated, though how many such big leaders in the Congress really stick to an ideology is a matter of dispute – considering the defections to the BJP all around, and the total failure of the old guard in countering the fascist forces, with Rahul Gandhi single-handedly taking on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Then began the saga of revenge. A miffed Prashant Kishore went to town saying that Rahul Gandhi does not know the ropes and Modi and the BJP are going to be formidable electorally for a long, long time, and Modi is here to stay and that he is not going to go away so easily. The Congress did not respond.

His next move was predictable. In the good books of Mamata Banerjee as a trustworthy master strategist, he made a grandiose plan of projecting her as the only real leadership alternative to the Congress and a possible alliance leader. That is, as a future prime minister leading a rainbow coalition. Besides, he convinced her to spread her footprints outside Bengal, something she had tried earlier too, but was not able to succeed.

Hence, from the airport in Dabolim to the remote end of Arambol in Goa, you can see a series of huge hoardings of Mamata Banerjee and ‘Goa Trinamool Congress’. Same is the story across the scenic landscape beyond Calangute, Vagator and Anjuna beaches on the other end. An influential former chief minister from the Congress in Goa was made the Trinamool vice president. Several other alliances with local parties, and defections, including from other parties, Congress and independents, were engineered; a buzz was created in the state, especially among the Christians, that the Trinamool is the now the sole alternative which can defeat the BJP. Mohua Moitra, very modern, very secular, and fluent in English, was posted in Goa as party-in charge.

Behind this new social engineering outside Bengal, one could see the mind of Prashant Kishore operating. He had sensed the total disgust with the incumbent government of the BJP in Goa, with shifting chief ministers, and currently a lame duck and ineffective chief minister with no mass base at the helm. He had also seen that AAP, despite its lofty promises, including freebies and free pilgrimages, was still on a weak wicket in the state – Christians did not trust its secular credentials. And most crucially it was transparent that the Congress was in tatters – despite winning the maximum number of seats in the last assembly polls (as in Manipur) they just did not have the skills or will to muster up a majority government. The BJP, as in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh earlier, and later in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, engineered a stream of defections from the elected MLAs of the Congress.

So why should people vote for the Congress, when its ideologically opportunist MLAs could so easily defect to the BJP? That became a strategic propaganda tool in the hands of the Trinamool, which has put forth its secular agenda with a mix of old-style pluralism and soft secularism. For instance, given the fact that the Hindu electorate is still 60 per cent and above in Goa, despite the strong presence of the Christians, there is still doubt that a section of them will not vote for the BJP. So, in the last rally in the state, Mamata Banerjee was reciting ‘Chandi Path’ and other Hindu mantras and scriptures, which she is very good at, even while castigating the BJP for its communal politics, and asserting that her party makes no distinctions between various religions and communities, and is truly secular.

Tripura became a battle ground in recent times because the Trinamool has a real chance to score big here in the long run. With a majority Bengali population, closely aligned to the cultural, social and political ethos and inheritance of Bengal, with a shared history and language, and with a totally discredited BJP regime led by an ineffective and immature chief minister, which has failed on all its lofty promises, the Trinamool entered Tripura in a big way after its victory in Bengal which had strong repercussions in Tripura. While Manik Sarkar is still hugely respected, the CPM seemed weak, and the people seem to be sick and tired of the BJP.

The Tripura government reacted in panic. It blocked the entire team of Prashant Kishore in a hotel. It indulged in violence against visiting Trinamool leaders from Bengal. It filed false cases against a Trinamool woman youth leader from Bengal – a rising star. It even attacked the CPM offices in desperation.

Not only that, communal polarisation was done before the local elections. Muslim localities and mosques were allegedly vandalised. The VHP etc seem to be given a tacit clearance to go ahead and do what they like. Local journalists were terrorised or subverted or cajoled with advertising revenue, as the Editors Guild of India report has clearly. Several cases against journalists and social media users were filed who were writing about the violence in Tripura. And journalists from Delhi and elsewhere were hounded, even detained and arrested, for no rhyme or reason, on preposterous charges.

Indeed, as the Editors Guild fact-finding report said, there are two predominant fears of the BJP regime in Agartala. The media from Delhi and elsewhere, reaching the state to report objectively and with no partisan intent; and the rise of the Trinamool Congress in the state. That is why this desperate resort to communal polarisation and violence against the Muslims, using the Durga Puja violence in Bangladesh as a plank.

The Tripura government clearly forgot that Bengal did not react in the same manner, and that the Bangladesh government retaliated with an iron hand against assorted Islamic fundamentalists, while assuring the Hindu community of total protection and safety – and this secular response was led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her cabinet, and her entire party on the ground. Indeed, the ruling party of Awami League declared that they will take on the fundamentalists on the streets of Dhaka and other cities and towns.

However, coming back to Prashant Kishore and his revenge politics, after much painstaking and time-consuming efforts, he was able to break the opposition Congress in Meghalaya. At least 12 of its MLAs and its legislative leader defected to the Trinamool. This was a war declared against the Congress.  The Congress top leadership, still, chose silence, barring sundry leaders.

In her first visit to Delhi after her victory, Mamata Banerjee had made a high-profile courtesy call to the residence of Sonia Gandhi, with whom she apparently shares an old bonding, based on her long stint with the Congress as a fiery youth leader. The next time, she refused to meet her, even while she met other leaders of political parties.

During her visit to Mumbai, she met Sharad Pawar and Aditya Thackeray. And she made a controversial statement: that the UPA does not exist, implying that the Congress does not deserve the leadership or an important role in a future opposition alliance. Not only that, she passed a snide remark against Rahul Gandhi. The Congress, still, refused to react.

This is when Sharad Pawar stepped in. The wily old veteran politician, who has stitched up a secular and reasonably steadfast alliance against all odds with the Shiv Sena against the BJP in Maharashtra, stated openly that there can be no opposition alliance without the Congress. Sanjay Raut, Udhav Thackeray’s right-hand man, and the editor of Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece ‘Saamna’, came to Delhi to meet Rahul Gandhi. He said Rahul and Priyanka are trying their best to revive the Congress at the grassroots and need all the support. He also said that Mamata Banerjee should rethink her position vis-à-vis the Congress, and that opposition unity is a must to defeat the BJP.

Meanwhile, in the south, the DMK, in alliance with the Congress in Chennai in a DMK-led majority government, categorically declared that there cannot be any alliance of the opposition without the Congress. The signals were sharp and clear for both Prashant Kishore and Mamata Banerjee — that opposition disunity for personal ambitions will only help Modi and the BJP.

Since then, a kind of silence has fallen like a shadow over the revenge politics of Prashant Kishore. Mahua Moitra has announced that they are open to welcoming Congress in their alliance in Goa. A superbly grounded, brilliant politician and mass leader, with a sharp sense of reality, Mamata Banerjee has since then stopped using the same language against the Congress. Besides, she might have been informed of the buzz in Delhi from her close confidants in the media and in her party stationed there.

Unlike her first visit after her victory, when there was a huge buzz of deep appreciation and affirmation in Delhi circles, including in circles within the bureaucracy and in the media, that she is a possible PM contender and therefore should be backed, this time there was angst and anger. Why this sudden arrogance, instead of flexibility and consensus? Why this unbridled ambition after such a huge outpouring of goodwill? Why this immature move against the Congress, which still has a solid vote base in India, when the fight against Hindutva and Modi is so crucial and the future is still uncertain?

The possibility of Pawar having instilled good sense in Didi is a sign of hope. The possibility that the happenings in Goa or Meghalaya will not destroy the larger opposition unity in Delhi is real. The possibility that the wind is shifting decisively and Modi is becoming weaker by the day is also real.

All the signs are out there. Modi and Yogi seem to be at loggerheads in UP, they seem unsure and uncertain, and they are clearly on a sticky wicket with the farmers in Western UP and Punjab pitched against them, and no communal polarisation on the ground, among other factors. The economy is in severe distress, and almost millions of people or more are jobless, with the poverty line increasing by over 75 million, and a huge chunk of the middle class becoming poor or getting into the lower income groups.

Even in these dire circumstances, with a lame duck puppet of a finance minister without independent vision or economic strategy, unlike for instance Joe Biden, Modi is refusing to pump in any investment in the economy, neither in the public sector, nor in job creation, even while the vast unorganised sector is in acute suffering, bordering on semi-starvation and trapped in mass unemployment.

The promise of full and double vaccination by December, 2021 has failed, despite reasonably good success in the first and second dose vaccination across the nation by a better and efficient Union health minister. Demonitisation and GST have been a total failure, while the small-scale industry has all but crashed.

Besides, India’s foreign policy has gone for a total toss, even while most of the neighbourhood has turned hostile or distant, or aligned economically and strategically with China. China has been so aggressive in usurping Indian territory that it is only matched by Modi’s passive response to this aggression – so, pray, whatever happened to the red eyes and the 56-inch chest when it comes to China?

With the Democrats wary of Modi who backed Trump, he is seen as a right-wing, sectarian, undemocratic PM within the White House establishment and in the American media. And with the Western nations not really in awe of him, Modi seems to have no friends in the advanced bloc, or even in the Middle-east, as in Saudi Arabia. All the millions spent on all the numerous foreign trips have really come to naught, when it comes to a successful foreign policy with Modi at the helm.

And with his best Right-wing supremacist buddies in a bad shape – it is all bad news internationally for Modi – Bolsonoro in Brazil, mired in corruption charges, is on his last leg; Benjamin Netanyahu has been defeated and dumped; Boris Johnson is struggling to stay afloat amidst serious backlash from his own party; and Donald Trump has lost it all – despite denying Covid and opposing vaccination, and now taking a booster shot! And dictators Vladimir Putin and Xi Jin Ping care two hoots for the current regime in Delhi.

Besides, veteran journalists point out that all is not seemingly well with the big guns in big business who have been backing Modi and reaping huge benefits in return. There are reports that things are not quite hunky dory for the BJP when it comes the powerful tycoons within the corporate sector.

Within this big perspective, the vast arena of empty chairs in a Punjab rally to be addressed by the PM, and the drama of security breach etc, are clear indicators of a pessimistic and sad finale of a Hindutva icon who appears to be on his last phase. Even Satyapal Malik, holding a constitutional position as the governor of Meghalaya, quoting Amit Shah on Modi’s mental frame, is a kind of bitter reality check, and tells more than it hides. Significantly, there has been no official denial on this from either the PMO, or home ministry or the BJP.

In these circumstances, with his staunchly fanatic and fundamentalist support base restricted to 31 per cent and above, Modi is just trying to retain this last remaining bastion at all cost, even while all is quiet in the BJP and RSS inside circles. There are unconfirmed speculations that the RSS might not consider him as a leader in 2024.

In these circumstances, the Prashant Kishore doctrine bestowing political and electoral immortality to Modi might not be so prophetically correct. In these circumstances, Mamata Banerjee, as much as the Congress and the Opposition, will have to play its cards more carefully, tactfully and with much nuance and discretion. Surely, it is qualities like maturity, wisdom, flexibility, consensus and strategic insight to defeat the enemy – that are crucial. Not blind ambition.



Assembly election dates announced for five states



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