The Congress's decision to requisition Prashant Kishor, a public health professional and political strategist, to design its campaigns for the upcoming polls in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat testifies to the faith the political class has come to repose in his skills to script electoral triumphs. This faith in him not only reflects worrying trends in Indian polity, but also begs the question: Is Prashant Kishor a political mercenary?

He isn’t a political mercenary as the term is commonly understood. Kishor isn’t available to any party that is willing to pay what the market would for his skills. He doesn’t go around trumpeting his successes as advertising agencies do, in the hope of bagging future deals.

It is Kishor who decides on the party whose campaign he wants to design. His skills are made available to the party of his choice subject to certain conditions, the foremost of which is to have a direct, even 24x7, access to its top leader.

Before the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Kishor is said to have worked out of Narenda Modi's residence in Gandhinagar, as he campaigned to become prime minister. Similarly, Kishor shifted into Nitish Kumar's home months before Bihar went to the polls last year. Such enviable access admen of yore have never had.

Kishor hasn’t explicitly spelt out the factors he takes into account to make his choices. Is it because he sees his own beliefs reflected in a leader whom he backs? Or is it that Kishor selects a leader on the basis of who is most likely to realise the goals he cherishes?

Ideological breadth

These questions assume importance because he has over the last four years traversed a vast stretch of India’s ideological terrain. He began his innings with Modi, shifted to Kumar, will now bat for Capt Amrinder Singh, an erstwhile royal, in Punjab, and whoever the Congress chooses as its chief ministerial candidates in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

But, largely because of his own past, it is hard to perceive Kishor as a steadfast ideological opponent of the Sangh Parivar and Modi. It was his group, the Committee for Accountable Governance, which is said to have conducted a community-wise mapping of constituencies, identified issues relevant to different sets of them, and provided Modi with talking points as he zipped through the country during the 2014 campaign.

This isn’t to say Kishor is a Hindutva adherent, even of the closet variety. However, it can be said that Hindutva doesn’t worry him unduly. Since he is said to claim credit for scripting Modi’s victory, Kishor can’t but have played a role in designing his 2014 campaign in which development and Hindutva were coupled together.

Was it Kishor who suggested that Modi speak of the Pink Revolution (shorthand for the anti-cow slaughter campaign) in western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana in 2014? Did he tell Modi to speak about the Ram Temple in central Uttar Pradesh? Was it he who asked Modi to rake up the foreigner issue in Assam?

It is possible such suggestions did not come from Kishor, or that he subordinated his dismay at such remarks to the imperative of victory. So if Kishor isn’t a Hindutva votary, what is he then?

Policy advocate

It is said that Kishor thought Modi was the most likely of all leaders to ensure good governance, which the public health professional values immensely. Modi, in turn, is said to have conveyed to Kishor that on becoming prime minister, the Gujarati politician would draft professionals into his team to formulate, and monitor, policies on water, health, education and other vital matters.

On this count, Modi belied Kishor’s faith. A story, perhaps apocryphal, says that when Kishor asked an important member in the Modi team what would come after June 2014, just after the new prime minister took charge, he received a terse reply: “After June will come July.” Regardless of the veracity of this story, Kishor grew tired of waiting to see the blueprint of good governance. In pique, he shifted to assisting Kumar in his bid to win Bihar.

The campaign Kishor designed was, in many ways, the opposite of the one he had created the year before. It was now his endeavour to ensure there was a Muslim and anti-upper caste consolidation behind the Grand Alliance in Bihar. From Modi’s Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas or Development for Everyone, it was now Bahari versus Bihari ‒ Outsiders versus Biharis.

Obviously, Kumar’s campaign had the requisite rhetoric on good governance. It is also possible to argue that the art of governance is ideologically neutral, and Kishor should be applauded for obsessing about the state delivering basic amenities to the people.

Yet you can’t but imagine another situation. Had Modi drafted professionals into his government, had Kishor been provided a ledge to engage in policy advocacy, would he have been appalled at the hate rhetoric of BJP leaders and ministers that followed? Would he have deserted Modi then? Even if he were to say that his sensibilities would have been assaulted enough to leave Modi, it is likely Kishor will not be believed.

This is because it is hard to accept that Kishor didn’t have some inkling into the Hindutva agenda of the Sangh Parivar, or that he thought Modi would willingly keep the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh at bay. Kishor is no ordinary man on the street. It is his understanding of the Indian psyche and politics that have enabled him to script successful election campaigns.

Taste of hubris

It is widely believed that Kishor has offered his skills to the Congress at Nitish Kumar’s behest, in the hope of reviving the grand old party which has to be a part of the anti-Modi, anti-BJP alliance for it to be electorally effective. Given that the next Lok Sabha election is still three years away, Kishor could breathe life into its moribund organisation. It is vital to vanquish Modi in 2019, some would argue, because his government is destabilising the society no end.

But violent churning is an inextricable aspect of Hindutva, which Kishor did not think was a problem till two years ago. He may be bothered about good governance, but Hindutva certainly isn’t a pressing worry for him.

Indeed, you can’t but conclude that Kishor is keen to teach Modi a lesson out of hubris, because he feels insulted in having been used and tossed aside.

What also perhaps drives him is his political ambition. It requires patience and endurance to work for years at the grassroots before rising to the top in any political outfit. Many short-circuit this tortuous route to the upper echelons because of their financial or muscle power or family connections. Kishor represents the fourth model – of providing professional skills in return for commanding influence. It is what you could call the gentleman’s model to power.

It isn’t an inconsequential matter to have known the prime minister personally, to have the ears of a chief minister (Nitish Kumar) and one who hopes to become one (Amrinder Singh), and now have a direct line to India’s oldest political dynasty, the Gandhis. He is now Advisor to the Bihar chief minister with a Cabinet rank.

Comment on politics

Kishor’s spectacular rise, however, is also a disturbing commentary on Indian politics. For one, it underscores our propensity to interpret electoral triumphs as ideological victories. From this perspective, the Congress hopes that in winning Gujarat and Punjab, and performing appreciably well in Uttar Pradesh, it could present these as India’s rejection of Hindutva.

No doubt, electoral successes are important, but what is vital for the Congress is to win the ideological battle against the Sangh. It cannot succeed in this unless it has committed foot soldiers who can counter the BJP at the grassroots, who can participate in a movement to battle for India’s soul. Slogans and electoral successes do not suffice. The 10 years of United Progressive Alliance rule did not render Hindutva ineffectual or irrelevant, did it?

No less worrying is the significance now placed on messaging, spending lavishly on elections, triggering essentially false debates (Bahari versus Bihar, or protecting the honour of daughters and daughters-in-law), and turning elections into a Bollywood spectacle replete with heroes and villains. It is not Kishor who is responsible for it. He is a product of it. His rise signifies that Indian democracy has become a spin democracy.

Kishor has now an aura of invincibility, as Modi too had before he was vanquished in Delhi and Bihar. His next battle is to enable the Congress to win Punjab, where he will face the challenge of protecting the party’s vote base from being cannibalised by the Aam Aadmi Party.

Kishor and the Congress should shudder at the possibility that AAP could do to them what it did to Modi and the BJP in Delhi. Should the Congress fail to win Punjab, Kishor could see his stock dip sharply, infinitely inimical to a freelance political campaigner than it is to a leader and his party.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.