In 2014, Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister also brought into focus the rise of Prashant Kishor, who was widely credited with helping the Bharatiya Janata Party achieve its victory. Nearly a decade since, Kishor’s emergence has effected lasting changes in Indian politics – from political strategising down to the use of language.
Kishor’s use of jargon, in particular, is of significance. Consider some of the terms that Kishor uses during interviews or while speaking: “electoral strike rate”, “ad hoc approach”, “winning combination”, “organisational units” and “unique unifier face”.
Psephologists and journalists typically use conventional terminology such as “voting patterns”, “caste equations”, “booth capturing”, hung assembly and anti-incumbency. Such language adds a technical dimension to their commentary. But over time, this jargon becomes overused and is insufficient to capture the intricacies of Indian politics and elections.
Kishor, on the other hand, employs a fresh lexicon to describe his work and the new era of politics that has emerged under Modi. Kishor’s explanation and expansion of the term “support base” is a good example.
In political parlance, the term “support base” is commonly used to describe the relationship between a political party or candidate and groups of individuals who align with them. One common way to define these groups is by caste, with certain parties being seen as favoured by certain castes.
Today’s political landscape requires a more nuanced understanding to comprehend the layers of the many factors at play. In an interview to The Indian Express four years ago, Kishor drew a distinction between two crucial components of a support base: the party support base and the candidate support base.
He referred to the support-base as “bandwidth”, a new lexeme – which in linguistics means minimal meaningful unit at the word limit – in Indian politics. Kishor’s use of “bandwidth” could be interpreted as referring to a distinct group of people with whom the desired amount of information can be exchanged in a specific time duration of an election within a designed framework.
He explained that when parties select candidates, they primarily seek individuals who can expand their support base. He noted that a candidate’s personal contribution to the total number of votes they receive is typically limited to 5%, 10%, or 15%, and in exceptional cases, up to 20%.
The factors that contribute to a candidate’s ability to add to the party’s support base include their reputation, caste, mobilisation skills, and resources, among others. Parties often consider a combination of these factors while selecting a candidate.
Kishor explained how the support base is structured into three layers – the party support base, the candidate support base and the composite support base, each with several sub-layers.
These detailed explanations add a new, technical dimension to the language used to make sense of political calculations in India. Kishor’s similar exegeses are subtly modifying and enhancing Indian political terminology.
Rejecting labels, remaining undefined
Apart from jargon are Kishor’s responses to the labels thrown at him. He has been referred to as a “political strategist”, an “electoral strategist”, a political consultant, analyst, or pundit. Kishor has vigorously rejected them all and instead prefers to be known as a “political aide” or, in Hindi, a “rājnītik sahyogī”.
In May 2021, days before the West Bengal Assembly election results, Kishor had said that he would “quit this space” if the BJP crossed 100 seats in the state. The BJP won 77 seats, but Kishor indicated that he had quit work as a political aide.
In late 2022, Kishor embarked on the Jan Suraj movement in Bihar, leaving political pundits confused. Despite not forming a formal political party, the Jan Suraj movement has sparked interest and speculation while a candidate backed by it was elected to the Bihar legislative council in April.
But given Kishor’s previous work, the term “political aide” requires further explanation to comprehend its intended meaning. According to Kishor, as a political aide, he assists politicians in the context of elections and “beyond”, but only if the politicians choose to work with him. Kishor also clarifies that a political aide helps politicians win elections rather than someone who makes them win elections.
Linguistically speaking, “helps” would mean assisting someone with the prerequisite political qualities but “makes” could mean providing or creating the necessary environment to win an election.
In linguistics, a term that requires a complete sentence or even multiple sentences to convey its precise, deliberate, and purposeful meaning (although not entirely applicable in Kishor’s case) is considered a technical term in English and a “pāribhāṣik shabd” in Hindi.
Kishor’s use of the term “beyond”, with reference to working with politicians, is perplexing as it lacks a tangible signifier. A tangible signifier is typically a physical object or situation that represents or relates to a more abstract concept, idea, or notion. For example, a vehicle’s registration certificate serves as a tangible signifier of its ownership.
Similarly, an election promise may be seen as a tangible signifier of an election strategy. However, in the case of Kishor’s work with politicians, which extends beyond election campaigns, it can be challenging to identify a specific concrete object or process associated with the term “beyond”.
One possible interpretation of this term is that Kishor may request additional demands, such as policy changes, in addition to his agreed-upon compensation. However, only Kishor and the politicians he has worked with may truly comprehend the intended meaning of “beyond”.
Returning to the term “political aide”, there is a process of semantic negotiation and extension that occurs as Kishor attempts to find suitable terms for his work. Semantic negotiation is a linguistic process to resolve the imbalance, contradiction or incongruity among two individuals or groups involved in a dialogue or interaction on certain words, phrases or sentences.
In this instance, Kishor is illustrating a word formation process, allowing for the observation of the real-time refinement and expansion of a technical term’s meaning.
This semantic negotiation is seldom observed when comedians perform stand-up comedy or entrepreneurs define their roles.
In neither Hindi nor English, no stand-up comedians or entrepreneurs have attempted to change their titles with new ones to fit the cultural context.
During an interview with journalist Shekhar Gupta in December 2021, Kishor contemplated how he should define himself within a space that many believe did not exist before his arrival. The phrase “this space never existed” signifies his lack of a specific label for the work he does, and it echoes throughout his statements.
Unlike Kishor, who refers to his work as simply “space”, as he struggles to define its precise boundaries, stand-up comedians have no difficulty calling their performances an “act” or a “set” and entrepreneurs refer to their work as a “startup” and YouTubers simply call it a “video”.
The terminology employed by Kishor to describe his role as a political aide encompasses three elements: time, space, and statistics. “Space” pertains to constituencies, “time” refers to synchronic and diachronic election years. This means analysing an election and its outcome at a particular moment in time along with studying the historical developments and outcome of elections over time.
“Statistics” involves various types of data, such as the percentage of voters in overlapping and distinct groups, the number of seats won by national and regional parties in each election, and the victory or defeat margins for each party per election, among others.
Data is transformed into Kishor’s unique election arithmetic through the permutation and combination of the three factors by members of his organisation, Indian Political Action Committee (I-Pac). The result of their work is not only achieving the desired goals for the political parties that engage their services, but also the creation of novel political terminologies that enhance the vocabulary of Indian politics.
Kishor meticulously shapes the new connotations of political terms, such as political aide, electoral strike-rate, ad hoc approach, unique unifier face, and organisational units, in the public domain.
During an interview with Raj Chengappa of India Today after the West Bengal assembly election in 2021 and the possibility of the formation of a grand alliance, Kishor discussed the Opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. He asserted that the recent election had resulted in the dissolution of the grand alliance as the “ad hoc approach” of calling for a united Opposition wherever convenient had been exposed.
Political enthusiasts may appreciate the distinctiveness and precision of Kishor’s use of the term “ad hoc approach”. In this regard, Kishor’s political vocabulary sets him apart from other experts in the field.
Since 2014, Hindi, one of India’s most important languages in terms of elections, has seen a decline in the usage of several political terms. For instance, the word “mat” (which means the adverb “not” and noun “vote”) has lost its significance and is rarely used, even by the prime minister.
No politician nowadays would ask for “mat” in an election, instead, they prefer the word “vote”. The voters themselves also prefer “vote” over “mat”.
Although the words “matadhikar” (voting rights) and “matdaan” (to vote) are still used in political speeches, their usage depends on “adhikar” (rights) and “daan” (to give), rather than “mat”. The term “chunav” (election) is also being slowly replaced by the word “election” in Hindi.
The decline of Hindi words in political discourse can be attributed, in part, to the widespread acceptance of English terminology in the Hindi language. Hinglish, a combination of Hindi and English, has become the norm for discussing politics.
Analysts, too, seldom use Hindi equivalents of terms such as “hung assembly” or “anti-incumbency”. As a result, there has been a significant reduction in the creation of new terms in Indian languages, particularly in Hindi, to describe the changing political landscape. Simultaneously, the standard Hindi words used to analyse politics are also gradually losing their relevance.
Going forward, will Kishor’s innovative coinages enrich the Indic languages with homegrown terms or will he resort to lexical borrowing, which has become the trend lately?
Krishna Kumar Pandey, is Assistant Professor (Linguistics), and Regional Director at the Central Institute of Hindi’s Regional Center in Shillong.