FOR KISHOR, THE PARTY’S NOT YET ON
The poll strategist’s revival plans for Trinamool Congress rub party leaders, state officials the wrong way
Poll strategist Prashant Kishor is having a hard time with his new clients, Trinamool Congress. Kishor was drafted to revive the party’s fortunes after its reverses in the Lok Sabha election at the hands of the BJP. TMC leaders are upset that an outsider is telling them what to do, where to go and whom to meet. Kishor has reportedly been issuing “diktats” to party legislators to spend nights at constituents’ homes to gauge the mood of the electorate.
“A novice in Bengal politics is telling us where to go, what
to do and how to take care of our constituencies,” says a senior TMC leader from South 24 Parganas, on condition of anonymity. “[Kishor is] selecting a few people based on his surveys, and instructing us to visit them.”
Kishor has put together a 650-member team to tour Bengal and identify the reasons for the people’s disenchantment with the TMC. Party leaders have been asked to visit aggrieved voters and bring them around. But that hasn’t gone to plan. “Tourism minister Goutam Deb paid a visit,” says Shankar Bag of
Phapri village near Siliguri. “He stayed with us [for a night], had tea, did yoga, listened to our grievances about promoters forcing us to sell land—that was it. There was no follow-up.” North Bengal development minister Rabindranath Ghosh could barely spend 30 minutes at each stop Kishor’s team had recommended. ‘Jai Shri Ram’-shouting mobs forced him to beat a hasty retreat.
Some TMC leaders are limiting their engagement with constituents to photo-ops—visiting designated villages, getting photographed and leaving. The photos make way to Kishor’s team for use on social media. “Kishor made it difficult for us with campaigns like ‘Refund cut-money’ and ‘Didi ke Bolo’,” complains a TMC leader from Bankura. “People are hounding us like we are thieves.”
To be fair, Kishor has quite a task at hand. Having secured a 40 per cent vote share and 18 of the 42 seats in the Lok Sabha election— just four less than the TMC—the BJP has emerged as the primary challenger to Mamata in the 2021 state assembly poll. Kishor’s problem is compounded by the fact that he was put on the job by Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata’s nephew—a fairly unpopular figure in the party. “Kishor’s entry has made the parallel power centres in the party all the more apparent,” says a senior TMC leader.
Biswanath Chakrabarty, professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, says it is one thing to launch an outreach and quite another to regain voters’ trust. “People realise that the changes in Mamata, such as her visits to slums or her making tea at tea stalls, are scripted,” he says. “Perhaps they see these as desperate survival tactics.” TMC spokesperson Partha Chatterjee, however, insists Kishor’s influence is restricted to party leaders. “Mamata Banerjee has been a brand for decades. She does not need to change or improve [her political strategy],” he says.
Kishor has also been intervening in the administration of social welfare schemes. Three bureaucrats from the chief minister’s office, responsible for the grievance monitoring cell, have been transferred, allegedly over differences with him. Bureaucrats are being prodded to address complaints received under the ‘Didi ke Bolo’ initiative. Since its launch in July, the helpline has got over 0.4 million grievances, of which only 750 have been addressed. This, when Rs 6.6 lakh was spent till August on ads for the ‘Didi ke Bolo’ Facebook page and Rs 1.25 lakh on the ‘Amar Gorbo Mamata (Mamata, my pride)’ page. “It almost seems as if an outsourced agency is using the government platform to promote itself as the deliverer,” says a principal secretary.
Already, three members of Kishor’s team have complained of non-cooperation from TMC leaders and expressed their desire to quit. Worse, according to team insiders, an internal survey suggests the likelihood of the TMC performing poorly in the next assembly poll. Kishor’s team has, till now, worked with opposition parties that benefit from antiincumbency. This time, his team finds itself fighting against the current.
MEMBERS OF KISHOR’S TEAM COMPLAIN OF A LACK OF COOPERATION FROM TMC LEADERS
IN A DILEMMA Mamata Banerjee