Bihar Election: The Leader and his machine

The dates of the Bihar polls scheduled for later this year are yet to be announced, but in a “war room” inside a bungalow on 7 Strand Road in Patna, Nitish Kumar’s campaign has been up and running since early March. Here, the walls are busy with Nitish posters, flashing TV screens and quotes of Plato and Michael Porter. And a core team of about 40-50 young men and women works daily into the night.

The group in the office on Strand Road is part of a larger 300-plus team of the Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC) that is mostly, about 70 per cent, made up of IIT graduates who have left high-paying jobs in MNCs to join the Nitish campaign. A need to be part of something larger and bigger, to connect and contribute to the “social” and the “political”, had earlier led some of them to the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) that worked on Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha campaign in 2013-2104 — the leftover CAG has now flowed into the IPAC. Others have come directly to the IPAC. Very few, only two in the core team, belong to Bihar. All are taking a break from their jobs, and though there is much talk about “risk-taking”, they seem to have little or no insecurity about finding another one. For now, till the election is done, they are offering their services to the “Leader”.

“We wouldn’t have taken the plunge to back a party or any impersonal structure” says Rishi Raj Singh. “I would not have left my job for the BJP earlier. I did it for Modi. I am working for Nitish now, not for the JD(U)”, he says. Rishi, from IIT Kanpur, has worked in Mumbai in an infrastructure bank, and was with the CAG’s Modi campaign earlier. “Modi was the trigger”, agrees Vinesh Chandel, who is from the National Law School in Bhopal, has practised in the Supreme Court and was also earlier part of the CAG. “We needed a leader for change, and to show us the way. We felt we must do something.” The transition for those who helped run the Modi campaign in 2013-2014 to the Nitish campaign in 2015 appears seamless. “When I first came to Bihar, I could see only one man who can be chief minister”, says Rishi. “Here, it can’t be Modi”, he says. “The geographies are very different. Modi’s theories won’t work in Bihar”, says Vinesh. Paroma Bhatt, a masters in international law and economics, who worked at the WTO before she joined the Nitish campaign a month ago, says that she subscribes to “Nitish’s socialist policies”, because “it has to be about distribution” in Bihar. But for the most part, agreement with the Leader’s ideology doesn’t seem to be a necessary part of working with him. Even for Paroma, “This (working in the Nitish campaign) is an investment in myself”, above all.

The line that connects each member of this group to the Leader is mostly straight and mostly untrammelled by the distractions and diversions of party, geography, ideology. What they all seem to share in common, however, apart from a passion for Nitish now and Modi earlier, and a zest for self-improvement, is “quant ability”, or an aptitude for statistics, logistics and data. The posters that dominate the Patna skyline with the common tagline, “Phir ek baar, Nitish Kumar”, the Facebook page and the door-to-door “Har Ghar Dastak” launched earlier this week, are visible. But since it set up base in Patna, the IPAC team has also been working in quieter ways. To get a ground-level sense of the caste equations and demographics, smaller groups have fanned out to each of the state’s 38 districts to conduct “FDGs” or focused group discussions at chai shops, aanganwadis and in the homes of ordinary folk and local notables. Individually and in groups, team members have also conducted “IDIs” or in depth interviews with those deemed to be opinion influencers in the state.

The reports of all the sub-teams have been compiled and any member can access ready-made summaries of constituency-wise data and poll issues, along with details of the 60,000-odd polling booths in the state. This data also feeds into the presentations that IPAC team members make to members of the JD(U). “In this office, even if we have to put up a coffee vending machine, the decision is taken only after presentations are made on the pros and cons”, says Rishi, only half-jokingly. And many tell stories of how their parents still cannot comprehend why they left their jobs. “My parents don’t understand. What is it that you are actually doing, they ask”, smiles Vinesh. ***     ***    *** The story goes that Prashant Kishor’s father didn’t speak to him for six months after Prashant told him he was leaving his well-paying job at the United Nations to explore his skills as an election strategist and planner for a leader who “delivers” — an ideology-agnostic formulation his teams seem to have imbibed from him. Prashant was the lead choreographer and mastermind of the CAG and he now runs the IPAC. He worked as a public health professional for 10 years, including one and a half years in Bihar. He had done a stint in Africa just before he resigned his job on December 11, 2011. Prashant, whose father retired as a doctor in Bihar, also contributed to Modi’s Gujarat 2012 assembly campaign. But it was his choreography for Modi’s spectacular Lok Sabha campaign that has ensured that the spotlight chases this backroom strategist ever since. While working with Modi, he set up base in the Gujarat CM’s residence.

Since June 2, he has shifted into Nitish’s residence in Patna to run his campaign. According to sources, Prashant’s campaign strategy for Nitish, like his strategy earlier for Modi, will frame, and pare down, the choice for the voter to one question: are you with Nitish or against him? When Prashant came to Nitish in December 2014, he found that, from his point of view, the conversation in Bihar, and its electoral dilemma, was cluttered with too many moving parts.

The conversation was mainly about how to keep the Modi-led BJP from taking over the state. The flamboyant Lalu was being projected as the “bada bhai” or elder brother in the JD(U)-RJD alliance that had been struck ahead of last year’s by-polls. And, Jitan Ram Manjhi, Nitish’s nominee, whom he installed as chief minister when he resigned after his party’s Lok Sabha rout, was increasingly striking out on his own. Things have changed since then, and the focus has shifted inexorably to Nitish. First, Manjhi was removed as CM and Nitish came back as chief minister. Then, Lalu’s “optical visibility” has been on the decline. The strategist, sources say, will aim to underline and build on this shift. It is not just that Lalu, who hogs every show and dominates every stage he appears on, is absent from the Nitish posters across Patna.

Lalu has also been persuaded or pressured into accepting Nitish as the alliance’s chief ministerial candidate and climbing down in terms of his demand for seats — from 140 to 100 (in a total of 243). For Prashant, however, even an equal 100-100 division for the RJD-JD(U) would be conceding far too much to the RJD and could cause confusion in the campaign he is building around the persona of Nitish. He would like the RJD to come down further, it is said, to 80, and preferably to 60 seats, while the JD(U) keeps 100. Prashant’s campaign for Modi purveyed intimacy with the Leader through the “chai pe charcha”, but he is better known for the the hi-tech projection of Modi in 3D. The core idea in constructing and reinforcing Brand Modi was the packaging of a Leader who can do the unimaginable, appear out of thin air at multiple places at the same time, brandishing all the answers.

The Nitish campaign, on the other hand, sources say, will push technology firmly to the back seat. The branding of Nitish will require him to knock on doors, as he did on the launch of the “Har Ghar Dastak” this week, and to approach the voter with humility. Despite the differences, however, the Prashant Kishor strategy, in the country for Modi, and for Nitish in Bihar, is to set up the teams and systems that will organise and streamline the resources and energies needed to package and promote the Leader. Even though electoral contests in India have always been presidential, this single-minded focus and this organised machine is new and remarkable.

Krishna Kumar
The state of Bihar has given a lot to the history of humanity but in recent past we had given child labour, women harresment, theft, murder and corruption. I am here to raise the voice.!