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Less than a year after its stunning win over the Bharatiya Janata Party in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress is in a state of tumult. After its win, the party had started on a bold plan of national expansion. Not only does that seem to be faltering, chaos has engulfed the party’s high command in its home fort of Kolkata itself.
On February 8, the Anandabazar Patrika reported on an alleged rift between Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and political consultant Prashant Kishor’s I-PAC. It was so serious, the report said, that Banerjee was thinking of firing I-PAC. At the same time, sources spoke of the chief minister’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, using I-PAC to strengthen his hand against the party’s old guard.
On Sunday, Mamata Banerjee cracked the whip. She simply dissolved the entire national working committee of the Trinamool Congress with the exception of her own post of chairperson. Abhishek Banerjee was divested of his post as national general secretary.
Factional fights within political parties are common. What is less so is an external political consultant being a part of the melee. In fact, the very idea of political consultants is less than a decade old in Indian politics. But as the ongoing Trinamool civil war shows, they have come to occupy a major space in Indian politics. How healthy is that for Indian democracy?
Kishor first rose to prominence in 2014, as he piloted Narendra Modi’s successful bid for prime minister in 2014. Since then, he and his organisation have worked with the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, the Congress in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh, the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu. It would not be unfair to say that Kishor has played a part in fundamentally changing Indian politics, bringing analytical methods, data and branding to a space that was managed in a largely unorganised manner till now.
While I-PAC has had a fairly successful track record, there are few places where it has enjoyed as much power as in Bengal. Brought in by Abhishek Banerjee after the BJP’s strong performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, I-PAC took control not only of the Trinamool but also exercised a significant amount of influence over the West Bengal administration.
It is difficult to underplay I-PAC’s effectiveness in helping the Trinamool pull up its socks. The consultancy brought in a data-driven framework that helped the party’s leadership see conditions on the ground directly without the party’s tempestuous middle rungs being brought into play.
Moreover, like with Modi in 2014, I-PAC rejigged Mamata’s personal image. While Banerjee was the state’s most popular leader, her appeal was built on an older style of street-level agitational politics. Kishor managed to reorient it to a more modern idiom, directly connecting voters, Banerjee and the government’s development and welfare work.
Like with Modi, the Trinamool went into 2021 with welfare and development being credited almost personally to Mamata Banerjee. This strategy allowed her to build more power at the expense of local party units as well as side step grave allegations of petty corruption by Trinamool leaders.
Equally effective was the I-PAC’s establishment of communications lines to both social media and journalists. Within a remarkably short period of time, the Trinamool was able to compete and, in fact, at times even better the BJP’s well-oiled PR machine.
Judging by the 2021 elections results, I-PAC’s advice was a success: the Trinamool swept away the BJP. However, as is becoming clearer now with the chaos in the Trinamool, this also had a number of unintended consequences.
For one, I-PAC is not an uninterested political consultant – it is now part of the Trinamool’s messy internal power struggles. Sources indicate that I-PAC is positioned as a key weapon in Abhishek Banerjee’s thrust against the party’s old guard. In the past few weeks, senior members of the Trinamool have accused I-PAC of releasing candidate lists for local body elections.
For anyone familiar with Indian politics, there are few more important roles for a senior political leader than to be able to get followers tickets. It is a key method by which senior leaders build and maintain bases and new netas rise in politics. Accusations that I-PAC has tried to take over this function are, as a result, quite remarkable.
It is unusual for a private organisation with no democratic accountability to be in such a key role in the party and even the administration.
Eventually, I-PAC’s work has weakened the Trinamool’s party machine, cutting out district-level leaders and, in fact, even senior ministers given that the party high command can now directly access the voter and ground-level data. The function of the party as a feedback loop has been rendered somewhat redundant. It is therefore not a coincidence that the age of the political consultant is also the age of the growth of personality cult politics in India, since it allows a single leader to dominate a state without support from a party machine.
Consultants also severely harm the role of ideology in politics. If winning elections are simply a technocratic exercise, then they become an end in themselves – not a vehicle to bring about political change by gauging what people want. In 2014, for example, the I-PAC-advised BJP went to the polls minus Hindutva, implementing it only after it came to power. In a mirror image, in 2021, the Trinamool pivoted suddenly to Bengali nationalism – but has barely mentioned it post its win.
That said, consultants are only able to play such an outsized role in Indian politics given that parties are so weak in the first place. India’s parties are often single person or, at best, single family outfits. In Bengal, for example, the Trinamool centres itself almost completely around Mamata Banerjee even as it tries to reach out to a population larger than Germany.
To make it worse, the Trinamool’s high command is spectacularly unrepresentative of its voter base, being restricted to mostly upper caste leaders from the Kolkata region. As a result, a large part of the Trinamool’s problems in 2019 related to the fact that its leadership had a limited understanding of ground conditions. It was I-PAC’s use of ground-level data that went a long way in fixing this problem in 2021. As a result, even though the I-PAC is an outside force, there is significant support for its model from sections of the Trinamool’s district units, who fear a return of the party’s old-style, hypercentralised, Kolkata-centric command system.
Worse, in order to maintain the outsized role of their single leader, parties will often intentionally not build capacities in-house and prefer to hire external consultants. This is to prevent the growth of any independent power centres within the party. In the Trinamool, for example, even a function as basic as public relations seems managed by I-PAC. So much so that a minister alleged that I-PAC had posted a message seen to be in favour of Abhishek Banerjee from her social media handle without her knowledge.
Held once every five years, elections are a critical part of a democracy – but engagement with voters needs to be a continuous process. Local democratic organs such as parties and legislators make that process possible, acting as a permanent interface between the people and the government. If political consultants weaken those modes of outreach, it is bad news for Indian democracy.
Yogi bears and bulls
The one story that will blow your mind this week: Chitra Ramkrishna, former CEO and MD of the National Stock Exchange, received detailed instructions on how to run the bourse from a mysterious yogi residing in the Himalayas. Or at least that’s what the Securities and Exchange Board of India says in a probe against Ramkrishna.
Ramkrishna claims she has actually never met her mentor. However, that is not a problem since “their spiritual powers do not require them to have any such physical coordinates and would manifest at will,” she reportedly told SEBI.
Holding a note
From Linlithgow in 1942 to Modi in 2022, Lata Mangeshwar’s career spanned a fantastically long period. Especially when seen in light of audio technology.
The “our” refers to the United States but I guess it’ll be similar across the world.