In November 2015, after Prashant Kishor helped Nitish Kumar defeat the Bhartiya Janta Party in the Bihar assembly elections, he wanted to aim straight at the 2019 general elections. He was in touch with senior Congress leaders even before the Bihar results were out.
Over 7 years, from 2015 to 2022, Kishor has tried to make various opposition parties and even civil society put up a good show against the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Regional parties typically just want to win their state election and then declare ceasefire against the BJP juggernaut. The only national opposition party, the Congress, just can’t get its act together.
Recently, the Congress party publicly offered Kishor a role in helping it revive. Kishor rejected the offer and almost immediately surprised everyone by landing up in Patna and writing a tweet that made it clear he was going to launch his own party instead. He even made clear the theme of his offering: “Jan Suraaj” or people-driven good governance.
Three thousand kilometres
In a press conference in Patna, he said he wasn’t yet launching a party. Nearly 18,000 people in Bihar have expressed an interest in joining him. He will meet these people over the next few weeks.
Then, on 2 October, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, he will launch a march on foot, aiming to walk around 3,000 kilometres in Bihar over 365 days. As he said this, the backdrop behind him had a quote and a photo of Mahatma Gandhi.
The “padyatra” (march on foot) will be launched from West Champaran district, where Mahatma Gandhi did one of his first successful movements against the British, the Champaran Satyagraha, forcing rapacious British indigo planters to leave the district, ending the exploitation of local farmers.
Jan Suraaj Party
It is thus clear that Kishor intends to launch his own political party. It is also obvious that the party will be called Jan Suraaj Party, that he will focus on Bihar, appropriate Mahatma Gandhi and work on creating a groundswell.
With these announcements, Kishor has made a radical shift in his career, seeking to transform from a political aide or “consultant” to a politician, or rather, a mass leader.
Can a director become an actor? We won’t have to wait very long as Kishor has set himself a big challenge. His Jan Suraaj Padyatra will be over by October 2023.
Lok Sabha elections will be held in May 2024. These the BJP will likely sweep, even in Bihar’s 40 seats, as Lok Sabha elections are held on the national question, “Is there a better prime ministerial candidate than Narendra Modi?”
But in November 2025, there will be Vidhan Sabha elections. These will be the first milestone for Kishor to cross.
Waking up early
In other words, he is starting 3.5 years in advance. He is doing what all opposition parties should be doing: permanent campaign. If you campaign just 6 months before an election, voters think you only care about winning elections. You don’t actually care about their aspirations.
Kishor’s repeated reminder that Bihar is even today India’s poorest and most underdeveloped state, along with the phrase “Jan Suraaj”, is meant to raise the people’s aspirations. His pitch is: why does Bihar have to be at the bottom of every table? Why can’t it be at the top?
This makes Bihar’s development at the centre of his pitch, as opposed to any negative campaigning. His pitch is not to dethrone Nitish Kumar or do Modi-bashing or demand to ‘change the system’.
Ideology? Mahatma Gandhi
With any new party, people want to know where it stands ideologically. Part of the reason why the Aam Aadmi Party’s rise has been excruciatingly slow is because they don’t know where they stand ideologically. Kishor has made it clear he’s going to appropriate Mahatma Gandhi. This firmly places himself and his party left-of-centre.
At a time when majoritarian extremism has gone mainstream, Mahatma Gandhi is seeing a renewed relevance in Indian politics. Mahatma Gandhi was also a leader of the Indian National Congress, so Kishor appropriating Gandhi also signals the ambition to replace the Congress with a new opposition outfit.
But the appropriation of Gandhi is more than just about ideology. Kishor is clearly also a fan of Gandhi, the political campaigner, announcing a padyatra like Gandhi would do.
What a yatra can do
In October 2019, de facto Congress president Rahul Gandhi took out a ‘padyatra’ in Delhi to mark Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. It was 3 kms long and lasted a few hours.
In 2017, Kishor began working with Andhra Pradesh leader Jagan Mohan Reddy. Jagan was completely down and out. His entire party had been poached away. He had no workers, no nothing. Kishor made him undertake a padyatra of over 3,600 kilometres over a year.
The padyatra helped Jagan’s YSR Congress party create both a party organisation as well as create a groundswell in his favour. This is the power of the padyatra as a campaign form. Jagan swept the state elections.
Rahul or Priyanka Gandhi or any of the young opposition leaders who believe in “work-life balance” won’t be able to undertake a non-stop year-long march on foot that has them walking at least 7-8 kilometres a day.
Kishor has said he intends to reach every corner of Bihar with this yatra. Merely announcing a new political party makes you a politician, but a padyatra can make you a mass leader.
If this yatra succeeds, it could change the political landscape of Bihar in just 15 months.