February 16, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we look at whether political consultants have a positive or negative impact on Indian politics. We also look at why over 1,000 FIRs were filed against Rahul Gandhi in Assam, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Impact of Political Consultants in Indian Politics
A political campaign is a complex endeavour with a clear and simple goal – win more votes than the opponent. The journey to cross that finish line first is the tough part. It involves launching the campaign, raising money, doing rallies, interviews, meetings, avoiding gaffes, etc.
Campaigns usually follow the motto “if you want to go far, go together”. Campaign workers and volunteers disperse to spread the gospel of their campaigns and candidates to the masses. Then there’s this rather peculiar group, political consultants, who mostly stay behind the scenes and strategise the campaign’s play-by-play. What do they do exactly? Does their work pay any dividends? Are political consultants relevant?
Behind every successful campaign is a team of strategists. Sure, the candidate is the face of the campaign, but always in their ear are the consultants/strategists advising them on what to do, what to say to whom, etc.
The Indian electorate is the biggest in the world. Even a local campaign can seem large in this context. All the more important that a campaign and candidate make the right moves. To use a sports analogy, a political consultant is like a coach on the sidelines calling the plays – media advertising, PR, opinion polls, opposition research, etc.
Political consultants are not a new phenomenon by any means. Given the clandestine nature of the job, it’s tricky to pinpoint its exact origin here. One of the first in India to gain prominence was Viplav Communications Pvt Ltd, launched by IIT-Kanpur graduate Pallav Pandey. Then came the 2014 elections, which was a turning point. At the time, the political consulting industry in India was valued at $40-47 million, with about 150 firms. Safe to say that number must be significantly higher now.
In the United States, political consultants are aplenty. Both major parties spend big money hiring people and firms to gain any possible advantage in local, state-wide, or Presidential elections. A 2021 report from Public Citizen showed political consulting firms made $1.4 billion in the previous two election cycles, including the 2020 election.
If there’s one name synonymous with political consulting in India, it’s Prashant Kishor. He’s arguably India’s most successful political consultant. Speaking of the 2014 elections, the Modi-led BJP was dominant, thanks in no small part to Kishor. Part of his operation involved a group of young professionals called the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG). CAG disbanded in 2015. Later, some of its alumni got together under the newly formed Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) under Kishor’s leadership.
Kishor isn’t alone. In the last decade, many political consulting firms and strategists have popped up and advised campaigns and candidates across the country.
Why hire political consultants? The answer is simple – you get everything you need in one package. Instead of hiring one firm to do advertising, another for research, etc, a political consulting firm will do everything for you. Given the complexities of Indian elections and electorate, the political consulting class in India is always looking to innovate and differentiate from one another.
Now, you can have all the tools at your disposal and still screw things up. Some estimates say political consulting firms charge nearly $300,000 per constituency. Candidates and parties have deep pockets and are willing to pay. Given the continued rising prominence of political consultants in India, are they worth it?
The proof is in the pudding
The job of a political consultant is simple – ensure your client wins. Speaking of Prashant Kishor, his association with the BJP for the 2014 polls paid dividends and then some. His firm was responsible for never-before-seen innovations in the Indian political landscape, including the 3D hologram speeches. It was an effective tool, as were others employed by Kishor and CAG.
Even under I-PAC, Kishor proved he still had what it took to win elections. In Andhra Pradesh, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy spent eight years working hard to make something of his newly formed YSR Congress Party in March 2011. In May 2017, Kishor was hired and devised a strategy to beat Telegu Desam Party (TDP) supremo N Chandrababu Naidu. The strategy worked, and they succeeded. The YSR Congress won 22 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats and 151 out of 175 seats in the Vidhan Sabha.
More recently, his work with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the TMC in the state elections is another example. He was also hired by the DMK in February 2020, prompting a response from AIADMK leader D Jayakumar calling Kishor the real leader of the DMK.
Pallav Pandey might not be a household name, but for Naveen Patnaik, he’s an important person. Pandey, an IIT-Kanpur graduate, founded Viplav Communications Pvt Ltd. Patnaik hired them for the 2009 Odisha assembly elections. He listened to Pandey’s advice to break its alliance with the BJP and contest the polls alone. It was a risk that paid off. The BJD won 103 out of 147 seats in the legislative assembly.
Less issue-based and outsized roles
For a campaign to hire political consultants isn’t newsworthy. In some cases, they’re in the news for the wrong reasons. While they work out well for candidates and campaigns, there’s a sense that the role of ideology in politics gets lost or at least diluted. Elections then become a contest of which political consultant has the better new shiny tool at their disposal.
Their impact can be positive, at least from a winning candidate’s point of view. Even then, things can turn sour. Take the recent reports of a rift between Mamata Banerjee and Kishor. It’s unusual for an outsider like Kishor, a non-politician, to have as much influence in the TMC, that internal issues make national headlines. As Shoaib Daniyal wrote, the only reason political consultants play such an outsized and influential role is the weakness of Indian political parties.
Political parties are mainly personality-driven or, in some cases, family-driven. I-PAC’s work, as Daniyal put it, has weakened the TMC machinery. It has weakened the role of local leaders and even some senior members of the party.
Consolidation of power at the Centre has weakened Indian democracy to some extent. In India, representative democracy requires strong party systems. They can negotiate public opinion on several issues in a heterogeneous electorate. The I-PAC model has come under criticism for undermining the party system. Ruchi Gupta, an adviser to the Samruddha Bharat Foundation, wrote that institutional weakness and a lack of ideological and institutional depth allows external feedback to have any impact at all. This isn’t a good thing for Indian democracy.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) Political consultants and strategists have a positive impact on Indian politics.
b) Political consultants and strategists have a negative impact on Indian politics.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
How Bhagat Singh and Narendra Dabholkar Argued for the Valuelessness of Religion
For the Left:
Why trust in media is at an all-time low
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Over 1,000 complaints (Assam) – On Monday, the youth wing of the BJP in Assam claimed that their activists filed over 1,000 FIRs against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. This came about after Gandhi had left the Northeast out of the nation’s “geographical expanse” in his tweets. Yet, the group’s media convenor Biswajit Khound could not share the information about the specific police stations the complaints were filed at.
Why it matters: On 10 February, Gandhi had tweeted about the strength and diversity of the country. Unfortunately for him, the words he used were: “From Kashmir to Kerala. From Gujarat to West Bengal.” This, according to Khound, was immensely offensive to the Northeast and threatened the nation’s integrity and security. A few days ago, Assam CM Sarma even made controversial remarks about Gandhi’s parentage when the latter questioned the 2016 surgical strike.
“Jammu vs Kashmir” (Jammu & Kashmir) – On Monday, the National Conference filed their objections to the Delimitation Commission’s recommendations. They even called the draft Reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir Act, “constitutionally suspect”. In a 14-page reply, the NC covered everything from the propriety of the commission itself to the constitutionality of adding 6 seats to Jammu when Kashmir has a larger population.
Why it matters: This is the second draft of the Delimitation Commission proposing major changes to the constituencies of Jammu & Kashmir. NC MP Hasnain Masoodi even said that the Delimitation Commission Act was not applicable to the region as its applicability comes from the J&K Reorganisation Act of 2019. Since the Supreme Court is currently hearing petitions against the latter, the Delimitation Commission has to be under scrutiny as well.
Renewable energy costs (Odisha) – Tata Power has agreed to provide renewable energy to consumers that want it but at an additional cost. According to the proposal submitted to the Odisha Electricity Regulatory Commission (OERC), a green tariff will be applicable to those availing it for at least 1 year. While consumers will be able to choose whether they want to use renewable energy or not, they will have to commit to it for a minimum of 3 months.
Why it matters: If a consumer opts for renewable energy, the first 50 units would cost them ₹3.84 per unit, the next 150 would cost ₹5.64 and the following 200, ₹6.64. The existing tariffs for the same are ₹3, ₹4.80 and ₹5.80 per unit. The licensee has also asked the commission to provide the consumers paying extra with green certificates. Karnataka and Maharashtra have also started supplying renewable energy and charge 50 and 66 paise per unit, respectively, as green tariffs.
Who needs Central insurance? (Maharashtra) – Following complaints from farmer groups, the state’s agriculture minister Dadaji Bhuse said that they might be looking at a state-level programme. This programme will replace the PM Fasal Bima Yojana, the Centre’s crop insurance scheme. The state government is trying to opt-out due to, as per the farmers, the delay and denial of claims. From the state’s side, it puts a massive subsidy burden on them as well.
Why it matters: Despite being majorly dependent on agriculture, states like Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Telangana, Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab and West Bengal have opted out of the scheme. The problems stated by them have been similar. According to Bhuse, around ₹30,000 crores is spent by the state on subsidies under the scheme. The state would rather adopt the Beed model of insurance where companies and the government work together.
Go ahead for land survey (Kerala) – The High Court lifted the stay on land surveys for the state’s controversial high-speed rail corridor, the K-Rail. According to the state government, the survey was being done only to assess the social impact of the project on its surroundings. Thus, making it an important part of the process. The Union railway ministry questioned this as the financial viability of the project seemed to not add up.
Why it matters: The 532 km long K-Rail, connecting Kasaragod in the north to Thiruvananthapuram in the south, requires 1,383 hectares of land. Given the state’s fragile ecology, this whole project has been subject to several protests from civilians and the opposition. Even Central Railways believes that this project will not be worth the costs of it, expected to be ₹63,491 crores initially. Annually, it’s supposed to cost ₹542 crores.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
₹22,842 crore – From 2012-17, ABG Shipyard Ltd managed to pull off what’s being described as India’s “biggest bank fraud”. The Gujarat-based firm collected ₹22,842 crores in total by defrauding 28 banks.