No ideology in poll battles is the new normal
As election clouds emerge on the political horizon, the non-ideological battleground is becoming obvious. Outsourcing of the traditional role of local political activists is the new normal. There are pitfalls in such an exercise, but politicians and parties, barring the Communists, are now comfortable with the arrangement.
To the old guard in various parties - the professional election managers - may be political vultures, but the elites that have emerged in the post-liberalisation India have no such problems. This has made Indian politics transactional and the manager is at home in any party that hires him.
Professional expertise is available on rent and driven by cash (and only occasionally by cheque) as with the apparatus of all political parties. Non-transparent operations, across party lines, suit all the participants.
The traditional system of party cadres, starting from the local unit to the national level, had a system of feedback. This enabled parties to plan and strategise political and electoral battles. The other side of the bargain was rent seeking and doling out favours to cadres. The system first came under stress in 1969 as Indira Gandhi split the Congress in her battle for supremacy with the party old guard. The 1978 split and the emergence of Congress (I) as a dominant player on the horizon completed the process with High Command culture.
The rise of regional and family run parties made it difficult to build and fund party organisations that could have a network nationwide or across a state. Individual charisma and fund managers became the important driving force.
In the emerging era, only ideologically driven parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist parties thrived on the traditional structure. The BJP slowly began to abandon its traditional structure as it grew in strength after the Ram Temple agitation.
The induction of individuals into the BJP who had not gone through the rigours of the Rashtriya Swayemsewak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of Sangh parivaar, brought in political professionals. Their ideological commitment was somewhat suspect. The need to rapidly fill the space being vacated by the grand old party, the Congress, enabled many semi-committed newcomers to rise within the BJP.
Electoral challenges and opportunities made the BJP depend even more on PR and advertising agencies for outreach. What had started out as an exercise for a national message trickled down to civic body elections. The result was neglect of organisational structures. Today all parties hire PR managers.
The fallout is best reflected in the number of persons who complain of their names missing from the electoral rolls. Till the 1980s local activists of all parties would reach out to voters at the time of revision of electoral rolls. Now there is no attempt by parties to participate in annual voter list revisions.
The rise of Prashant Kishore symbolises the new elite and its political outlook. He shot to national prominence by taking the lead in Narendra Modi’s election campaign in 2014, through Citizens for Accountable Governance. He fell out with the BJP after the elections, launched Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) and shifted allegiance to Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (U) strongman Nitish Kumar. The 2015 Bihar Assembly election was Kishore’s grudge battle. The victory of the mahangathbandhan (grand alliance) of the JD (U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress underlined his reputation.
Kishore, as a true non-ideological, transactional election manager, moved towards the Congress in 2017 and became its advisor in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Though the Congress bagged Punjab, it suffered a humiliating defeat in UP. The current battle in Andhra Pradesh between the Telugu Desam Party supremo N Chandrababu Naidu and the YSR Congress of YS Janganmohan Reddy has been attributed to Prashant Kishore. He is seen as a key strategist of the YSR Congress. The assembly and Lok Sabha elections of 2019 will test his mettle in the southern India.
There have been unconfirmed reports that Kishore is now back in the BJP fold and may be part of the party’s campaign for re-election in 2019. Others say Kishore is trying to revive the mahagathbandhan in Bihar. Whatever the truth, non-ideological fortune seekers have found their place in the sun.