Ace political strategist Prashant Kishor, has overseen the organisation of mammoth political rallies. But for now, he’s going from one village to another, addressing groups as small as 20-30 people. He has not launched a political party, he has not started a long march, not yet. These meetings are the preparation for the preparation of an eventual political plan.
It would have been easy for him to take a Rajya Sabha seat or even become a deputy chief minister in one of the states he has worked in. It would have been easy to become a drawing room politician in Lutyens’ Delhi, influencing the lives of millions of people simply by controlling who gets access to the top political leaders in the national capital.
In his stump speech Kishor makes it a point to say, ‘Yes I know it is difficult. That’s why I want to do it.’
Over the years he has come to thrive on being written off. When he achieves what people say is unachievable, he becomes larger than life.
It is easy to become a politician. Kishor is trying something much harder: he is trying to become a mass leader. It is challenging in very many ways. To go from advising top leaders to sitting in a humid school compound, no fan, mosquitoes whizzing around, is the sort of thing that prevents many from this hard life.
An average day begins at 8am, ends at midnight. Bihar’s cottage industry of caste and community organisations encounters him one after the other. They have questions. They want to check rumours spread mischievously through media plants. Is it true you are joining BJP? Is it true you are returning to JD (U)? Is it true you could return to Congress?
The underlying sentiment in these rumours is that Kishor is still seen as a political aide whose chief occupation is to make other politicians win elections. Just the journey to convert from strategist to politician will take a few months.
The making of a leader
Mass leaders are never born overnight. The overnight ones often prove to be a flash in a pan: look how long it’s taking Arvind Kejriwal to expand. Look how Kanhaiya Kumar, Hardik Patel and the sorts fizzled out.
Mass leaders are not made without roughing it out from village to village, without people getting to know you as a person. The one common thing about mass leaders of all kinds and ideologies is that they spend the first few years of their political lives with the people. This needs sacrificing personal comforts, family life and ‘me time’.
Success stories of mass leaders will invariably tell you about such sacrifices. From Barack Obama to Narendra Modi, from Indira Gandhi to Jagan Mohan Reddy, from Jayprakash Narayan to Eknath Shinde, from Mahatma Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee, they have all spent nights in the huts of ordinary people to reach the top.
Today’s rich, entitled dynasts can’t put up such struggle. They’d rather be learning scuba diving in Mauritius, running in London’s Hyde Park, partying in Spain’s night clubs or spending three hours a day at a five start hotel gym in south Delhi.
It used to take several decades of roughing it out before one could become a mass leader, the sort of person whose name and face is known even to an unlettered old woman in a village without a main road.
The good news
The good news for Kishor is that technology has made the journey shorter: words spoken in these small meetings travel to hundreds of thousands through videos on social media. In Kishor’s case, the national media obsession helps too. An off the cuff remark aimed at persuading voters of a certain community is blown out of proportion by a headline-hungry media. All publicity is good publicity.
Another reason why Kishor could succeed against all odds is the discontent in Bihar. In these small meetings, aimed at identifying people willing to commit themselves to the cause, the questions reveal the vacuum of governance in Bihar.
Teachers don’t come to school, hospitals don’t exist and if they do, doctors don’t exist. Nitish Kumar has supposedly done a great job of roads but the bumpy ride from Patna to Samastipur spoke of the neglect of infrastructure. If there ever was a time when Bihar was ready for a new messiah who could sell them a new hope, it is now.
That’s why his year-long Jan Suraaj Yatra (‘March for People’s Good Governance’), starting 2 October, could get more traction than most would reckon. Bihar is desperate for new leadership, new ideas, and a new political formation.
The road not taken
Kishor is not the first person to try and start a new political party in Bihar or India, and he won’t be the last. Most such attempts fail, not least because the road is a long and arduous one, much like the monsoon-washed state highways of Bihar.
There could be various disruptions on the way, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel may not be visible. There are many hurdles no doubt, the biggest one being caste. Kishor happens to be Brahmin by birth, and Bihar’s politics has had a consensus that only an OBC can become a top leader in the state.
Most would laugh at the thought that Kishor can overcome the caste barrier with some clever campaigning, but then again that’s the kind of challenge he likes to take up.
The biggest challenge for Kishor would be patience. There will always be the temptation to take shortcuts, do an alliance here or there. Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bahujan Same Party, thought election-winning was a 15 year cycle.
The first election was meant to be lost, the second one to defeat someone else by cutting votes, and the third one to win. How much shorter can Kishor make this journey by using technology, with media attention and his modern campaign tricks? Ten years? Five years? Three years?
The next Bihar assembly election is three years away. Even three years is a very long time in the age of instant gratification. But if Kishor can persist, he could one day be looking back and thinking of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Road Not Taken’:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.