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Nitish does a Modi, hires Prashant Kishore, his key election architect

Soumya Shankar | Updated on: 24 June 2015, 11:30 IST
QUICK PILL

The imitation game

  • Narendra Modi\'s key campaign expert Prashant Kishore is going to handle Chief Minister Nitish Kumar\'s upcoming election.
  • Kishore was the architect of Modi\'s high-profile 3D hologram and \'Chai Pe Charcha\'campaigns in 2014.
  • Not just JD(U), every political party in Bihar - the RJD, BJP, even Jitan Ram Manjhi\'s party - are hiring private political consultants.

The business

  • The size of India\'s growing political advisory business is between Rs 4,000 to 5,000 crore per year.
  • Political consultants are politically agnostic. Besides, electioneering, they advise politicians through their five-year term.

Downside

  • Critics say social media is no substitute for politics and direct contact with voters.
  • But no party is taking any chances.

Imitation is indeed the best form of flattery. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is emulating the professional electioneering and social media hype used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2014 for the Bihar legislative assembly elections.

In fact, the upcoming Bihar election is going to have an unprecedented dimension.

A number of politicians in Bihar, including Nitish Kumar, are convinced that while paying obeisance at the altar of caste, they also need to use social media and benefit from the advice of tech- savvy political consultants. They are making a beeline to the offices of political consultancy firms based in Delhi and Mumbai.

The playmaker

Prashant Kishore, a former health specialist with the United Nations, who left a plum job in Africa to start the high profile Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), has joined the campaign of Janata Dal (United).

Kishore and the CAG team were responsible for Modi's 'Chai Pe Charcha' and 3D-hologram campaign. Their hyper-efficient social media campaign had helped project Modi as a leader in sync with a demographically young nation.

Kishore's CAG team had reached over 1,300 locations - 325 in Uttar Pradesh itself. A crew of 2,500 members handling 125 3D was involved and more than seven million people reportedly viewed the 3D shows over 12 days.

Kishore, who had also branded the Gujarat model of development, will now sell its very antithesis - Nitish Kumar's Bihar model.

However, Pavan Varma, spokesman of the Janata Dal (United) points out, "We haven't hired Prashant Kishore. He has joined us pro bono. He believes that Nitish Kumar has the potential to be a national leader and can offer a counter-narrative to the present government. We welcome him, both for his decision and the expertise he brings."

Jumping on the bandwagon

Nitish Kumar is not alone in accepting the help of a political consultancy firm. Candidates from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the JD(U), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and even Jitan Ram Manjhi's Hindustani Awami Morcha have apparently hired professional political consultancy firms.

Political advisory firms like Political Edge, which have worked actively in the Parliamentary elections of 2014 and in state elections since 2008 claims that business queries are pouring in from across the political spectrum in Bihar.

"We are party agnostic. I can't reveal the exact number but we are working with a lot of individual candidates cutting across party lines," says Sourav Vyas, founder of Political Edge.

Kishore, who branded the Gujarat model of development, will now sell its antithesis: Nitish Kumar's Bihar model

The newer players in the market are reaching out to the candidates themselves. "Since we are a nascent firm, we are pro-actively contacting potential candidates from Bihar," says Rohit Deshpande, co-founder Rann Neeti, based in Mumbai.

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Election Awaz, a Delhi-based firm, has tended to work to with national political parties in the past. "We've worked for Sheila Dixit and Modi in the Lok Sabha elections. Now, we focus on standalone candidates," says J P Singh, Managing Director of the firm. For the Bihar elections, a retinue of 600 ground workers and 96 permanent employees - which include data analysts, psephologists and psychologists - are working round the clock to advise candidates from 27 constituencies.

The backbone of the campaign

Even though the range of services offered differs with each firm, political consultancy is India is not just about electioneering. Companies often work on issues of governance with candidates throughout their five-year term.

The services offered by them include ground-level surveys to assess the mood of the voters, drafting manifestos, and even writing speeches. They also undertake post-election work. This can involve connecting the winning candidates with NGOs in the area, and approaching companies for spending their CSR funds.

Some, like Political Edge, have also developed apps that allow candidates to track their constituencies 'on-the-go'. Others, like Rann Neeti, work only on broad frameworks - contracting specialised services to others.

The valuation of the fledgling political management industry is around Rs 4,000-5,000 crore per annum

"It's six months before the elections, we have three clients, from the JD(U), SP, and one I cannot name," says Rohit Deshpande, co-founder of Rann Neeti.

Social media strategy is high on every firm's list and is broadly considered to be a smart and cost-effective way of reaching out to a large mass-base of voters. Some firms - like Election Awaz - boast of tie-ups with top telecom operators that send minute-to-minute details of candidates to voters from their constituency.

"We've had people requesting us to conduct mass campaigns. Here, we go to the field and push an idea in the public, say that a candidate is winning. Even if 3-4% people believe us, we start a viral loop. As we say in India, "Mahaul ban raha hai" (A wind is blowing),'' says Saurabh Vyas, founder of Political Edge.

A new brigade

While some estimates suggest that the total valuation of the fledgling political management industry in India is around Rs 4,000-5,000 crore per annum, industry insiders claim that the actual figure is much higher.

It is important to note, however, that political consultancy firms do not claim to ensure electoral victory.

"We work with the client in micro-managing elections. But, if you're losing with a hopeless margin - say 50,000 votes or more - it is impossible for us to change that. We can assure an addition of only 2-4% votes," explains Vyas.

Some firms have developed apps that allow candidates to track their constituencies 'on-the-go'

Some sociologists also tend to doubt the efficacy of political consultancy forms.

"Ultimately, it is your politics that matters. Modi won a massive mandate because his politics was working. Social media will not ensure a win or a defeat. Ultimately, the candidates will have to interact individually with the voters. In Delhi, the social media may have a reach but in Bihar and other places, politics is still the key element of a campaign," argues Saibal Gupta, President, Asian Development Research Institute in Patna. Effective or not, the rush for professional political consultants is affecting the traditional bastion of electoral politics: the party war-room. As Pavan Varma says, "It's no longer a poster-and-rally situation. Everybody is using the new instruments of technology. Modi spearheaded this and Prashant Kishore was the architect in many ways."

Taking their cues from that, Bihar's politicians seem to be buying 'insurance' by not neglecting the new media in their campaign plans.

Modi must be chuckling at his bete noir, Nitish Kumar, following in his footsteps, even if reluctantly.

First published: 24 June 2015, 11:30 IST
 
Soumya Shankar @shankarmya

A correspondent with Catch, Soumya covers politics, social issues, education, art, culture and cinema. A lamenter and celebrator of the human condition, she hopes to live long enough to witness the next big leap in human evolution or the ultimate alien takeover of the world.

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