Election wizard, political leader, consultant, political adviser Prashant Kishore has been many things to many people .
Even his fiercest critics admit that the man is a hard trier and does not lack ideas. The complexities of the Bengal politics have kept him engaged these days.
As special consultant and election campaign adviser to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) , he has already coined new slogans and led initiatives to improve the ruling party’s Assembly election prospects in 2021.
It is was too early to ascertain whether Mr PK as he has come to be known , has bitten off more than he can chew in his mission to take the TMC first past the post in 2021. But if he fails —and the poor governance in the state remains a daunting challenge for him— it will not be for lack of trying.
As for now,working conditions in Bengal are uniquely advantageous for him. TMC Supremo Mamata Banerjee decided discretion to be the better part of her valour as soon as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)sent shivers down the TMC’s collective spine winning 18 Lok sabha seats and a 40% share of aggregate votes, in 2019.
Comparable figures for the incumbent TMC : 22 seats and 43% , respectively. For all her tall talk, she had read the message on the wall. For the first time in her eventful career, the TMC Supremo called out for expert assistance to help her beat off her stiffest political challenge to date. She ignored the fact that her decision to call for help to ensure her survival sent out the wrong political message. Obviously the TMC was scared and running for cover, the first time since its launch in 1998. First blood to the BJP.
As analysts try to assess his prospects of helping craft a third Assembly poll victory for the incumbent TMC, it is instructive to recapitulate what Mr. PK has tried out so far, to make the TMC more saleable within the electorate .
His opener was a sedate ,’ Mamata Banerjee, Banglar garbo’ —–(Mamata Banerjee, Bengal’s pride). It was used liberally in official ads for a while, announcing government projects etc. However, it was not used for long. As the LS results showed, the pressures of anti incumbency had indisputably caught up with the TMC. Despite the BJP’s own problems of setting up its organizational structure, people in Bengal, after seeing her in power for 9 years, did not react to the new slogan with any noticeable enthusiasm. Post LS elections in Bengal, people became bold enough in Kolkata and the suburbs to criticise, even joke about , the goings-on within the TMC. Hardly the stuff associated with any sense of ‘pride’ about anything among the people.
So ‘pride’ had a fall. But Mr. PK’s IPAC organisation (that is , Indian Political Action Committee, whatever that means) came up with an apparently more effective tag : People were now told, ‘Didike bolo’ or Tell Didi, along with some mobile numbers. Tell her what ? The idea was people would ring up the assigned numbers and report the daily problems they were facing, whether in their offices, schools, transportation, power supply, lack of water—-whatever. Such complaints, it was implied would enjoy top priority and presto, roads would be repaired, bus services improved, pending applications to the civic bodies handled speedily…. Those benefited would enjoy the feel- good factor and inspire many more to contact the CM’s separate establishment set up specifically to handle such complaints/requests for help.
This was a more structured concept that involved a direct interaction between the commoners and the ruling administration at the highest level. During the first few days, the results were mixed. A few minor local problems like garbage and power related issues were attended to. Those helped waxed eloquent in their praise of the CM on the loyal Bengali TV channels . But this success ,as it were, led to a consequence that apparently IPAC execs had not anticipated.
The special department set up was simply inundated with calls for help, from Jalpaiguri to South 24 Parganas. Lakhs of people were calling up, the assigned numbers getting jammed ! There was neither manpower, nor the requisite administrative back- up handle the tsunami of complaints. The government departments concerned , already hard pressed, did not display any special energy to solve the numerous problems that remained unattended for so long. Once more, the IPAC had failed to take due note of the glacial pace of official work in most Government departments in the state, whether one spoke of the Home, Health, Education, Municipal Affairs, Agriculture or Labour.
Worse, most callers now complained they could not speak to anyone, the numbers mostly remaining jammed. And on the rare occasions they did get through, they were subjected to a series of questions such as : details of their residence down to the ward level, number of members in their families, their income levels, their political record if any and inclinations, their Aadhar card and PAN numbers …. The impression that the real intention of the IPAC was to collate a comprehensive data base within the electorate was hard to dismiss. Following a major criticism among the people, this effort too, was abandoned without fanfare /announcement.
This is not to suggest that other things were not happening elsewhere. Suddenly there appeared several reports in the social media about widening differences among state BJP leaders. One report even claimed that at least two BJP MPs and three MLAs were about to cross over to the TMC with unconfirmed accounts of their differences. Nothing of the sort occurred . State BJP leaders claimed that the IPAC through a fake news campaign was trying to earn its keep. Unconfirmed reports said that the organisation charged fees up to Rs 500 crore to help political parties conduct their pre election campaigns.
The latest IPAC slogan is in Hindi : it shows the TMC supremo in various poses against a background of cheering crowds with TNC flags, with the slogan ‘Main hoon na’ boldly scrawled in Hindi, Bengali or English…… Some observers feel that the idea seemingly was conceptually a reversion to the first one , Bengal’s pride. Well, everyone knows that not all slogans hit it big among the people—-not even if they are coined by IPAC and inspired by the miraculous PK magic !
What has stymied the sincere efforts made by the IPAC to turn the tide in favour of the TMC—- the team has now been reduced to approaching Left Front candidates with a relatively -clean record in the districts to join the TMC campaign in lieu of tickets to the Assembly elections in Bengal !—- is the growing unpopularity of both the TMC and the state government in recent times. There have been widespread allegations of misusing official funds by TMC panchayat leaders and others of the relief m money and items sent by the centre after the Amphan cyclone. Even routine ration supplies were withheld from people to encourage black marketing. The return cut-money campaign, again an IPAC initiative, was not carried out all the way. The message that most party leaders were busy siphoning off commissions taken for routine help given to people for years had gone out , which was a massive political handicap, TMC insiders argued.
‘The message so far on the IPAC initiative seems to be in life, you can’t win all the time… I wonder if PK or the IPAC execs reporting to him would agree. More importantly, it is time for people like Mamata Banerjee also to think and learn from this . It would have helped if they had read books like the “The selling of the President” written by Joe Mcginnis years ago, as an active participant in the Corporate efforts to help the Richard Nixon campaign years ago —- unsuccessfully, as it turned out,’ says Kolkata-based economist Shounak Mukherjee.
( A Veteran Calcutta-based journalist and commentator , Ashis Biswas is now News Editor of Easternlink)