There is a phrase in Prashant Kishor’s Twitter bio that illuminates a reticent man. It reads, “Believe in the Wisdom of Crowd.” Its curious phraseology is both an injunction and a profession of faith.
But we can read his words in a far more meaningful way, one that foretells a politics of depoliticisation – configured by the “end of ideology” and the “art of the possible” – that drives much of our present moment. As he now plays an increasingly pivotal role in Indian politics, he remains a critically understudied figure, much to our detriment.
Absence of political sensibility
In January 2020, Kishor was expelled from the Janata Dal (United) for “anti-party activities”. Kishor had coordinated the party’s successful campaign – along with the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal for the Bihar state elections in 2015 – and he occupied a minister-level position in Nitish Kumar’s cabinet.
The reason: his differences with Kumar over the Citizenship Amendment Act passed in December 2019. This purportedly posed an inconvenience to Kumar. Kishor publicly panned the Bihar chief minister’s position, going so far as implying that by supporting the Citizenship Amendment Act, Kumar posed a danger to India.
For a man whose consultancy work straddled the Indian political spectrum –now with the BJP, now with the Congress – this stuck out like a sore thumb. It was clearly just a ruse. In late 2019, when aligned with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, the invisible hand of Kishor was evident in many of its actions, including its decision to steer clear of Shaheen Bagh, the locus of anti-Citizenship Act Amendment energies, altogether.
Amidst his row with the Bihar chief minister, Kishor claimed to espouse an “egalitarian humanism rooted in the Gandhian tradition”, a statement of belief – if it can even be called that – vacuous enough to invite both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Communists.
Instead, there appears to be an “absence of a political sensibility,” as British Marxist theorist Stuart Hall wrote, lurking within. The trappings of egalitarian Gandhism, suitably bereft of substance, masks a truer ideology of no ideology at all.
The possible and the given
In 1966 Hall, in an essay titled Political Commitment, bemoaned, among other things, the replacement of politics with psephology in the West. Hall saw this model of politics, which remains similar nearly a half-century on, as fundamentally conservative, constrained merely to “manoeuvring the status quo.”
Kishor’s work mirrors the politics of which Hall was writing, though in a different context. With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, Kishor constructed a receptacle for popular feedback – employing targeted marketing mechanisms – which he then mined to feed the electorate back. Modi’s image – sullied by the 2002 Gujarat riots – was deterged: he was now a technocratic, business-oriented messiah, almost divinely ordained to remedy India’s ills.
In his much-vaunted collaboration with the Trinamool Congress, Kishor replicated this template. On coming on board the Trinamool Congress’s ostensibly sinking ship, he shook things up. Kishor lent a hand in setting up a hotline for common quibbles. To its credit, the government followed up quickly, dispensing caste certificates and reaching groceries to underprivileged doorsteps.
However, this brand of politics – piecemeal, professionalised and most of all depoliticised – is empty, with no transcendent vision in mind, no drive for inspiring or organising. the many. It is enervate and it enervates.
It is unwilling and incapable of stitching together any transformative programme and unsurprisingly, it is loath to take to the streets. It is no coincidence that the Trinamool Congress’s 2021 manifesto advocates a deadened agenda – spruced up with a shallow incrementalism married to a neoliberal politics. It shuns what Hall described as the “praxis of politics”, opting instead for a superficial popularism. It takes majoritarian “wisdom,” conditioned by ideology (in a Marxian sense), with its attendant atavism and limited economic imagination, as the basis for its politics.
The path forward
Whilst most parties operate from a version of this playbook, the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – along with their various appendages – do not lack political commitment in any form. Their founding creed of Hindu nationalism, though massaged for a wider audience in 2014, remains undiluted as is their ambition to remake India in their image and likeness.
More crucially, they are unafraid to harness the masses’ basest instincts, to wed theory and practice. The recent rampage through Tripura’s thoroughfares and mosques bears witness to this fact.
The 2024 general election will be significant for India’s political, economic, and cultural landscape. If it ratifies a third consecutive Modi term, the ramifications for India’s embattled Muslim minority will be severe. The remnants of India’s public industry will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. India’s emaciated welfare state will likely decline further, as the state cossets capital ever more indulgently.
The political Opposition must mount a robust challenge to the Modi government. The opposition’s platform should be animated by a transformational idea, activated by a praxis that bats for the many, not the few. However, recent signs point to a ragtag coalition of regional parties – possibly without the Congress – strategised by Kishor.
The BJP will put its best foot forward in 2024. It has the organising power of the Sangh behind it. There is a determined cohort of people – fanaticised by myths of “love jihad” and deceitful missionary conversions – ready to vote and whip out the vote. An unideological response, shorn of real politics, stands little chance.
Kieran Correia studies law at the Jindal Global Law School.