Bihar: Is Prashant Kishor really a ‘Gandhian’ on a mission?

The election strategist recently announced the 'pre-launch' of his rebranded Jan Suraaj party — just ahead of the assembly elections of 2025

Election strategist Prashant Kishor announces his own Jan Suraaj party (photo: Getty Images)
Election strategist Prashant Kishor announces his own Jan Suraaj party (photo: Getty Images)

Soroor Ahmed

Judging by the large number of cars parked outside the relatively new Bapu Bhavan in Patna, the state capital of Bihar, it appeared to be an important event.

It was nothing more, nothing less than a conclave recently hosted by Jan Suraaj, the organisation founded by election strategist Prashant Kishor in 2021–22, which he plans to turn into a full-fledged political party on 2 October 2024.

The Jan Suraaj Party, Kishor declared on TV in the first week of June, would form the government in Bihar next year. This announcement was lost in the excitement of (erroneous) exit polls that forecast a landslide victory for the BJP in the Lok Sabha. It’s only now that Bihar is waking up to the man and his mission.

Claiming to be a Gandhian inspired by the freedom struggle, Kishor had launched his padayatra from Champaran almost two years ago. Addressing the conclave in Patna, he said, “You may have heard on TV that nobody backed by Prashant Kishor has ever been defeated electorally. In next year’s election, I have decided to back the people of Bihar, not any political leader or party. This time, too, I will not let you down. Next year, you will be the winner.”

His timing cannot be faulted. He senses a political vacuum in the state with Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar’s 35-year-old dominance about to end.

Both leaders are at the fag end of their political careers. None of the other political parties, namely the BJP, Congress or the Left, have leaders who can fill their shoes.

Lalu Prasad’s RJD has apparently settled the issue by projecting Tejashwi Yadav, who has in a relatively short period emerged as a credible leader. Riding on the young man’s campaign, the RJD did emerge as the party with the highest vote share in the recently concluded general election.

Aware that his party will have to take on Tejashwi and the RJD first, Kishor has been savage in his attacks. Who would have taken Tejashwi Yadav seriously had he not been the chief minister’s son? What good is a school dropout and failed cricketer? The mockery has been relentless.

Jan Suraaj currently operates from a commercial complex on Exhibition Road, occupying three floors, and employing several hundred youngsters. Many more are engaged in the districts.

An advance party always travels ahead of Kishor during his padayatra, pitching camps for the night halt, setting up meeting places, informing villages, and even organising sports, competitions and cultural events.

Tech-savvy youngsters from Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University have been collecting data for the outfit. Some say that engaging Muslim youth is a smart move to woo the community, which has traditionally supported Lalu and Nitish.

Kishor has been questioned by YouTubers and interviewers about the sources donating to his war chest. His reply has been elliptical: those he helped in the past are now helping him.

There is speculation that the data collected by his team is sold to generate revenue.

Tejashwi Yadav has called him a ‘BJP agent’. (Nitish Kumar had publicly said it was he who inducted Prashant Kishor into the Janata Dal (United) as vice-president on the recommendation of Union home minister and BJP leader Amit Shah.)

Bristling at Tejashwi’s accusation that he lived in five-star tents during his padayatra, Kishor rebutted by saying that Tejashwi would not be able to survive even one night in his ‘five-star tent’. This disdainful response did not deter RJD vice-president Shivanand Tiwary’s claim that “Prashant Kishor spends a crore rupees a day”.

While the war of words continues, Kishor insists his motive is to give the state back some of its pride and glory. Once upon a time, people from the entire country came to study in Bihar. Now Biharis are dismissed as bewakoof (stupid) and held in contempt.

Let us assume, he said rhetorically at the conclave, that the Congress during its 40-year rule did develop the state. Let us also assume that Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar gave back the OBCs and Dalits the voice and political participation they had lost. Yet, could his audience deny that Bihar is still the poorest, most illiterate and backward state?

The leaders have taken Biharis for a ride. It is now time for Biharis to take charge. Do not vote for any leader or party, he exhorted, do not vote on caste, but do vote for the future of your children.

There has not only been a migration of human resources and labour from Bihar, he points out, but also of capital. What he would like to see in his lifetime is people from other states seeking employment in Bihar.

Since 1990, he claims, the banking sector has invested over Rs 26 lakh crore, collected as deposits. The annual average income of a Bihari is just Rs 35,000, which means that over 80 per cent of the population live on a hundred rupees a day.

Part of Prashant Kishor’s (crafted) appeal is that he does not spare the BJP or Narendra Modi. Why, he asked, did Modi-ji not spare even a single day during the last decade to address issues of backwardness of Bihar? Why did he send all the investments to Gujarat, which gave him just 26 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, and overlook Bihar, which gave him 39 Lok Sabha seats in the same election?

Kishor knows a thing or two about managing elections. During the last decade and more, he has worked not only on Modi and Mamata Banerjee’s campaigns, but also for M.K. Stalin, Jagan Mohan Reddy, Akhilesh Yadav, Amarinder Singh—indeed across the political spectrum.

After successfully steering the campaign of the JD(U)–RJD-led Mahagathbandhan in Bihar in 2015, he knows his state well. He also served as vice-president of the JD(U) from 2018 to 2020 before being thrown out by Nitish Kumar, the same person who had inducted him.

What remains unclear is whether his Jan Suraaj Party will contest the 2025 assembly poll on its own or tie up with the NDA. While Tejashwi Yadav has been dismissive, observers believe he and the INDIA bloc need to be wary about the political challenges posed by a fresh, new party like Kishor’s—much like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi and Punjab.

Kishor attracts people from different walks of life. Last year, he roped in half a dozen retired civil servants. Apart from giving lectures on the political and social transformation of Bihar, he has been reaching out to the masses, interacting with people from a cross-section of society and identifying people he can lean on.

While he does ask people to rise above caste, observers in the state claim that his focus is more on Muslims and upper-caste Hindus, especially Brahmins and Kayasthas, who nurse the grievance of having been denied their due. The BJP, which fielded 10 upper-caste candidates and five Rajputs, fielded just one Kayastha.

Pragmatic and ambitious, Prashant Kishor is confident that his international exposure and experience in marketing and communication will work in his favour politically.

A year is a long time. Let’s see which way the cookie crumbles

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