Poll strategist Prashant Kishor says it is a fight between Mamata and Modi and turncoats don’t matter, explains how BJP creates fear before a contest, and warns that if TMC loses Bengal, India will be headed for one nation, one party, with BJP controlling people’s lives.
RAVISH TIWARI: How is the politics of Bengal different from other states?
… It’s a unique election because in the last 30-35 years, the ruling party in Bengal has not been challenged by a national ruling party… When the Left was in power, they were never challenged by the ruling Congress. This is the first time that Bengal is witnessing a regional ruling party being challenged by a national ruling party, which is out there to win at any cost.
Of course, a national party brings in its own dynamics. They want to utilise caste much more than what Bengal has witnessed before. This is not to say that caste never existed, it’s just that you have a political dispensation which probably wants to exploit it a bit more. So in that way, it is different. Also, the hype around an election is much lower when two regional parties are fighting. Once you have a ruling national party taking on a ruling regional party, then you have much more interest. So people like you (the media) are much more interested in Bengal than, say, Tamil Nadu.
RAVISH TIWARI: Last year you said that the BJP will not cross double digits in Bengal. That still means 99 of the state’s 294 Assembly seats. What was it based on?
Around November-December last year, there was a lot of hype being created around the BJP, that they are going to sweep the state, get 200 seats etc. So, it was important for us to say publicly that this is not true… There is no way that in December the BJP was in a position to be winning 200 seats. And, in our assessment, they would struggle to enter triple digits, and I stand by that remark. If they do, I will cease to exist as a political aide to anyone. I must quit this space, and quitting this space does not mean Twitter; I won’t do this work ever.
The BJP’s strategy in Bengal has five legs. One is polarisation. Second, they wanted to discredit Mamata Banerjee and create widespread anger against her. Third, they used all means to make sure that the TMC as a political entity collapses. The fourth strategy has been to get support of the Scheduled Castes. Fifth, they are banking on Mr Modi’s popularity.
Now, they have been successful on all five counts to varying degrees. They have been able to polarise, but the question is whether they have polarised the electorate enough to cross the threshold of 60% (of the majority votes). Historically, when elections happen in a polarised atmosphere, the threshold has been around 50 to 55%. What I mean is that when an election happens in a polarised atmosphere — in Gujarat post-2002, or in Uttar Pradesh post-Babri Masjid — usually we see 50 to 55% of the majority community vote for the BJP. In Bengal they have to break that threshold. They cannot win Bengal unless they get at least 60% of the majority votes… I don’t think Bengal is as polarised as we have seen in other parts of India.
The second aspect is of discrediting Mamata Banerjee. Now with a 10-year-old government, there is bound to be some anti-incumbency, and of course there is anti-incumbency against the TMC. In some pockets, there could be a bit of anger also. But, if you travel across Bengal, you will find that (the anger) is mostly against the local TMC leaders, and by and large people are still willing to trust Didi (Mamata Banerjee). And because it is Didi’s election, the Trinamool will hold its ground.
The third part is the collapse of TMC. Again, it has been told ad nauseum by national media that there is an exodus from the Trinamool… They (the BJP) use all means to poach people, and they have been successful in getting say 30-odd MLAs and MPs. For a party as big as the Trinamool, which has got roughly 230 MLAs and 40-odd MPs, Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha put together, losing 20-25 MLAs is a big deal, but it’s not a collapse of the party.
It has also triggered the realignment that has happened in the Trinamool after the Lok Sabha elections. There has been a conscious effort to realign the organisation on the ground, and many who did not find themselves in key positions had reasons to feel not so good and they left…
The fourth is the issue of the Namasudras and Matuas, and the larger SC community. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act was announced to get their vote in the Lok Sabha elections. The Namasudras, a very large community within SCs, voted en masse for the BJP (in the 2019 polls). But in the subsequent by-elections in Bengal, even in Namasudra-dominated areas, they lost. Since then, by and large they are trying to downplay the CAA. There is no chatter about chronology that we heard earlier.
And finally, Modi’s popularity. I must admit he is quite popular… He is probably the most popular BJP leader. (But in Bengal) He is not more popular than Didi. And in an election where it is about electing a chief minister, probably we have an advantage.
AVISHEK G DASTIDAR: How much has your presence added to the narrative of the TMC’s collapse, with many leaders like Suvendu Adhikari alleging that Mamata doesn’t run the TMC?
I am there to do a job, which is to help the Trinamool win elections. I am not there to make friends… Suvendu Adhikari was a powerful Trinamool leader. He has said on stage that he has been in touch with the BJP since 2014. Now, if you are advising the Trinamool and you know this fact, what would you say? You would say that please get rid of these people. Also, since the reorganisation after the Lok Sabha polls, some might have felt that they have not got as much prominence as they would have liked… Okay, blame Prashant Kishor because he is new… It doesn’t bother me. Somebody will run the affairs. To say that Prashant Kishor is running… Earlier it was Suvendu Adhikari, before that Mukul Roy… A lot of people are making accusations that Didi is no longer running the party.
My argument is Mr Amit Shah runs the BJP. All the decisions of organisation and otherwise are taken by him. But can we say that Mr Modi is not running the BJP? It is not a valid argument. Whoever the leader of the party trusts will run the party as per her wishes and direction. Didi is the core of the Trinamool, there is no Trinamool without Mamata Banerjee. She is not a part-time politician; she is there 24/7. You cannot make any significant decision without her consent… I’m not a factor, Suvendu Adhikari is not a factor. The fight is between Mr Modi and Ms Mamata Banerjee; I’m inconsequential. People like me are inconsequential. We are probably giving ourselves too much importance on both sides.
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: What specific inputs do you give Didi in terms of candidate selection, strategy?
The work we do is quite misunderstood. We do everything that is required to be done to help the party or the leader who we are working for to win the election. We do everything. Now if I do their social media, or help them with data, or whether I’m doing candidate selection or advising her on her speeches… It is futile to get into that. We do everything that is required for a party that is willing to seek our opinion. Do you think the BJP makes candidate selections without inputs from professional agencies? What are you talking about? Do you think it is possible for the central committee of the BJP to sit here and know the nuances of the block- and taluka-level politics in West Bengal or Tamil Nadu and make those decisions?
DIPANKAR GHOSE: Will anti-incumbency and anger against local leaders affect the TMC’s chances?
Yes, it is a factor and that’s why the effort is to mitigate it to the extent possible. Almost 60% of the Block presidents are now new. More than 80 MLAs have been dropped. All those things, I hope, have contributed to mitigate… I am not saying everyone will become a fan of your government, but it will certainly help mitigate some of the anger, if there was any.
RAVISH TIWARI: By doing things like reciting Chandi Path, is Mamata Banerjee falling into the BJP’s trap. Also, is she opting for defensive tactics?
…It is right to be a bit defensive and not unnecessarily take too many risks, because elections are also about not making unforced errors. Yes, you want to win, but you do not want to commit too many unforced errors. Why would she go and do something which could be risky? We have a good lead… It is for the BJP to take the risk.
HARISH DAMODARAN: Both the TMC and DMK (which Kishor is also working for) are playing on sub-national pride. But don’t you think a new constituency is coming up which looks at Hindi as aspirational, Lord Ram as aspirational, and that Mr Modi is addressing them directly?
As a political entity, you are entitled to use what you think is going to work for you. If you think Ram or Hindi is going to work for you, or creating a national identity is going to work for you, you can use it. If somebody else thinks creating a sub-national identity — that I’m a Bengali or a Tamilian — is going to help, then they are entitled to use it… At the end of the day it is a provincial election. If Mr Modi says I am son of Gujarat, he has a natural advantage in Gujarat. So if someone is claiming I am the daughter of Bengal, what is wrong in that? She (Mamata) is a daughter of Bengal…
KRISHN KAUSHIK: As a political strategist, do you see any weaknesses in the BJP’s Bengal campaign and Brand Modi in particular?
In Bengal, they (the BJP) haven’t been able to present a positive narrative. You say Didi’s government has not delivered but the BJP has not presented any alternative agenda either. So if there is a weakness, it is that they haven’t been able to present a positive narrative or positive agenda… and that is going to be the decisive factor.
(On Brand Modi) I am not an expert but the BJP usually underperforms in Vidhan Sabha elections compared to the Lok Sabha polls. The performance in the Lok Sabha can be attributed to Mr Modi’s popularity, but the reverse is also true — the under-performance is because of his inability to transfer his votes to the provincial leader. If you plot it on a graph, you will see a downward trend (in Assembly poll results) since 2014. I am not saying he is not popular, but his ability to transfer votes is probably starting to go down a little bit… For example, since 2019, the BJP’s performance in Assembly polls has seen a double-digit percentage point decline in vote share, whether it is Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Delhi or Bihar. Everywhere they have seen close to 12 percentage point decline since 2019. This underperformance was in high single digits between 2014 and 2019.
RAVISH TIWARI: What do you make of doubts over EVMs by political parties?
Unless you have substantive proof to back what you are saying, it’s just gossip. Even if it is true, I don’t have proof…
RITIKA CHOPRA: But the TMC has raised the issue of rigging of EVMs….
Political parties can raise the issue. I am not here to comment on the Election Commission of India… (But) It is not a coincidence or, maybe it is, that all the seats in which the BJP was leading in the Lok Sabha polls are being slotted for the first four-five rounds… For the first time a district is being carved out for three, four or five rounds. For example, Nadia North is run by the Trinamool and Nadia South by the BJP. Now South goes to polls first, North later… We would like to believe that the ECI is independent. But if you are really turning the lens on it… Why should four out of 31 seats of South 24 Parganas be slotted in round one? It’s beyond me… We know that in a phased election, if you gain early traction, you are likely to benefit on the margins in terms of perception. All strongholds of the Trinamool are slotted in the sixth, seventh and eighth rounds…
RAVISH TIWARI: Do think identity or social justice politics has come to Bengal?
Identity politics was always there. It’s a question of how much you play it up. I haven’t gone to any state in India where caste/identity is not a factor. The SCs in Bengal are the most important factor in these elections. This is not to say that Rajbanshis and Namasudras… didn’t exist earlier. They always existed, parties paid attention to them also. But it is now being brought to the forefront a bit more… just like we have seen in UP and Bihar.
RAVISH TIWARI: The Modi government has completed seven years. What has changed electorally and what still remains a constant?
I have said this in the context of the Bengal elections… If the BJP were to win, we are looking at the prospect of one nation, one party. Why do I say so? We have seen governments with a bigger majority than this one. We have also seen parties ruling India for far longer than this. Why are we saying that this is different? It is because of the reason that beyond your voting preference, here is a government that wants complete dominance on the psychological mindspace of people. They don’t just want your vote. They also want to interfere into what you wear, eat, who you are friends with, and what your faith is. That bothers people… Never before in this country, a ruling party has given a war cry to wipe off the Opposition. That is problematic… People are not worried because they voted for them (the BJP) and they are in majority. People are worried that when they come, they will say you cannot wear jeans, be friends with Muslims… Hence, in this backdrop, if they win Bengal, we would have made a decisive step in the direction of one nation, one party.
VANDITA MISHRA: When parties rely on professional organisations like yours, does it mean they are losing faith in own feedback mechanisms? Also, since you handle campaigns for parties, how important is a campaign for winning an election?
It is not that parties have lost faith in their own feedback mechanisms… (At the) End of the day, it is the politician who makes the decision. Whether he is basing his decisions on two inputs or 20 inputs is immaterial. But logically speaking, more the sources of information, better are the chances of factoring in many more issues.
Campaigns per se cannot make you win or lose elections. We collect data for some people, manage social media for others. We also help in candidate selection. But we have taken a conscious call that we will only do elections where we have an opportunity of a year or a year-and-a-half, where we help rebuild the party and leader. If you look at our association with the Trinamool or the DMK, it’s much longer. So by campaign if you mean the efforts in the last 30 or 60 days, that cannot change the result.
RAVISH TIWARI: You said what is worrying about this dispensation is that they want to go beyond the vote. How effective has the Opposition been in talking about this?
It is worrying for a lot of people but the Opposition is just not getting it. They are thinking… it’s because they (the BJP) are winning elections and the media is fearful… But winning elections isn’t creating fear… People are much more fearful because they (the BJP) want complete dominance beyond votes, electoral politics… They want to reset the narrative — the way you think, work. That is creating fear and the Opposition is not handling that issue.
Why have we given this ‘Khela hobe’ slogan in West Bengal? Before the BJP enters an election, they create psychological fear. They are a three-MLA party in Bengal and Amit Shah comes and claims Didi is gone and that she is alone. You give up without fighting. Hence, we are saying game on. That’s why this (Khela hobe) has become such a big thing. So much so that the PM is responding every day to it.
The second part is the repositioning from didi (sister) to beti (daughter). When you call someone didi, you are looking at them as the provider, the protector… And hence the slogan ‘Bangla nijer meyeke chai (Bengal wants its own daughter)’.
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