Prashant Kishor’s role as the modern-day Chanakya who crafted the Grand Alliance’s resounding victory in Bihar is being widely acknowledged. But what is less known is that the election strategist served as a buffer between alliance leaders Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav – two men separated by old political rivalries and disparate personalities –propelling the Mahagathbandhan to a winning alliance.

In the end, Kishor’s impact as a behind-the-scenes enabler of the Nitish-Lalu friendship may have been as much, if not more, than his innovative election strategies and tactics.

It’s no small irony that Kishor was one of the biggest sceptics of the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal alliance when he joined Kumar’s team six months before the elections. The former public health communication expert was convinced that Kumar’s pitch for a third consecutive term based on his administrative record would be diluted if he contested the elections with Yadav by his side.

Doubts all around

Political expediency had compelled the JD(U) to take support from the RJD and the Congress to prop up its government after Kumar had snapped ties with the BJP in 2013. However, seeking a fresh mandate with a leader synonymous with “Jungle Raj” appeared to make a mockery of “Brand Nitish”, violating every tenet of the messaging manual.

Conversely, for an old school politician like Yadav, Kishor should have been anathema as the quintessential upstart, who had no business being involved in such a complex electoral context with so many castes, sub-castes, and communities in the mix. Kishor was not only a complete greenhorn to Bihar politics, but he also openly espoused hi-tech marketing methods in politics – a strategy that homespun politicians found suspect. Kishor and Yadav had plenty of reasons to hate each other, let alone work together as a team.

In the beginning, Kishor remained a mere spectator as larger political players such as Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Yadav’s family members pushed the JD(U), RJD, and the Congress towards a grand anti-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance.

Despite widespread cynicism in the media and political circles, the stumbling blocks were cleared one by one and the grand alliance was eventually formed.

Warming up to the task

Yadav announced that Kumar would be the chief ministerial candidate and an amicable distribution of seats between the parties went through without a hitch. Kishor played no small role in working out the seat-sharing agreement, where 202 seats were equally split between Kumar and Yadav and the remaining 41 seats were given to the Congress. For him, this successful give and take was the game-changer.

Kishor apparently told his friends that once the “100-100” pact was finalised, his gut feeling was that the Grand Alliance would win the election. The success of the alliance between two dominant political entities such as the JD(U) and the RJD depended on an equal partnership, with neither party feeling cheated of their status.

However, despite the amicable seat-sharing arrangement coupled with Kumar and Yadav’s hug in public, the partnership remained a difficult proposition. The problem lay not so much in their old political rivalry as their drastically different personalities.

Kumar is a deliberately calculating politician, who works to a preconceived, fixed plan. In contrast, Yadav is a spontaneous, instinctive mass leader, who believes in tactical innovation rather than a grand strategy. Not surprisingly, coordinating a joint strategy so essential for the success for the alliance was a daunting task.

Lalu gets on board

Quite unexpectedly, and perhaps inadvertently, Kishor became a navigating tool for the two old political compatriots-turned-rivals-turned-partners again to work out a professional working relationship.

In an amazing paradox, Kishor’s potential handicap of being a total outsider to the politics of both the JD(U) and RJD became his biggest asset. It helped him become a routine communication channel between the two leaders, who despite their old association and current interdependence, were palpably uneasy with each other.

A significant turnaround was the change in Kishor’s estimation of Yadav from a liability to a huge asset in Kumar’s bid to become chief minister for a third successive term. By voting day, Kishor spoke in open admiration about the RJD chief’s “political maturity”. The election strategist was quite taken aback at the wholehearted cooperation and bonhomie that Yadav offered to him.

The admiration was clearly mutual. Despite Kumar’s move to paradrop Kishor on the Bihar election as his strategic adviser, Yadav quickly warmed to him. The canny grassroots leader not only recognised the importance of the marketing flair that the communications expert brought to the campaign, but also deeply appreciated Kishor’s neutrality in ensuring equitable seat distribution. The warmth was evident when Yadav spontaneously hugged Kishor when the fabulous victory was declared.

Yeh guruji hain. Iska salah hamesha lena (He is the teacher. Always take his advice),” is what Yadav is believed to have told his children about Kishor.

The success of this unique triangular relationship between Kumar, Yadav, and Kishor, with the election strategist becoming an unlikely catalyst for the partnership between two political veterans that snatched Bihar from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is an amazing political parable. It shows that innovation, not stereotypes, is the name of the game in the rough and tumble of Indian politics today.