With respect to consultancy services in West Bengal or any other state, if they don’t belong to the state, their role tends to be limited.
The new importance assumed by consultancy and/or strategic services in Indian electoral battle has certainly added a crucial dramatic twist to politicking here. The most sought out person is of course Prashant Kishor, who emerged on this scene by apparently assuring Narendra Modi a victory in 2014 parliamentary elections. He is in news now as his services are being used by Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. What an irony!
This poses a major question. Would it be fair to say that Modi’s political reach would have been confined to Gujarat without his and his party using the services of Kishor and his team? It is hard to accept this for several reasons. First, Modi himself has been a well-known master-strategist from the day he decided to enter the national stage.
Secondly, it cannot be denied that saffron-brigade linked with the Bharatiya Janata Party has played a major role in gaining support in the name of Hindutva, Ayodhya as well as polarisation along religious lines. Prior to Modi joining the national stage, senior BJP leader L.K. Advani played a major role in elevating BJP to the ranks of a major party. It would not be erroneous to state that the basic foundation of this party at the national level was laid by Advani’s campaign and assumption of power as Prime Minister by Atal Bihari Vajpayee even though by heading a coalition government (1998-2004). The fact that Gujarat carnage (2002) played a major part in preventing the return of Vajpayee as Prime Minister cannot be sidelined. It made it easier for the Congress-led alliance to head the Central government for two consecutive terms.
Prior to crediting any consultancy service for Modi’s victory in the 2014 elections, some importance needs to be accorded to the foundation already laid for BJP’s prospects in the preceding years. Further, the nature of communication strategies used by Modi while engaged in Gujarat politics was primarily the same that he used later at the national level. These include the importance accorded to negative campaigning, use of anti-Pakistan card and dependence on the saffron-brigade for arousing communal fervour.
With respect to the “secular mask” donned by Modi while campaigning for the 2014 elections, its limited relevance is marked by the percentage of votes secured by BJP. It was less than 32%. In Indian politicking, electoral results are also manipulated by fielding several independent candidates to cut into votes of rival parties and thus emerge the winner by a narrow margin as well as far less than 50% votes.
The limited relevance of consultancy services may be noted in the Bihar Assembly elections of 2015. Had BJP’s rivals not formed a grand alliance, the result may have been different. What can be said about the much talked about victory of the Congress in the Punjab Assembly elections held in 2017, after two consecutive defeats? Should only the consultancy services used by Congress be credited for its victory? As suggested earlier, the Indian electoral drama often takes unexpected turns by entry of more contestants than expected. This silent strategy at times is not directed at winning seats but to politicking directed at dividing votes through entry of several, even numerous candidates and/or parties to contest polls. This point raises the question as to whether the victory of Congress in the 2017 Punjab Assembly elections would have been possible without the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) joining this political race?
AAP won 22 seats and around 25% of the votes. Compared to the difference of around a percentage of votes secured by Congress and the winning party Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in 2012, in 2017 it was around 8%. In addition to the entry of AAP, it is possible that the merger of People’s Party of Punjab—which failed to win any seat in 2012—with Congress, and similar politicking played a major role in pushing the SAD out of power in 2017.
This does not imply that consultancy teams should hardly be credited for electoral successes of parties using their services. Nevertheless, the political reality of their importance being limited by politicking indulged in by rival parties cannot be ignored. Dismal performance of Congress in 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections, despite use of consultancy services cannot be ignored. Congress leaders hardly fall short of gaining media coverage for their campaigns. But however extensive their campaign and media coverage be, electorally they tend to stumble.
The preceding point may be linked with BJP’s die-hard strategy of targeting the Congress. A prime agenda of the BJP apparently is that of further reducing the spread of Congress in Parliament as well as at the level of the states. Notwithstanding the extensive campaign being indulged in by BJP leaders in West Bengal, even if it fails to win, the party would probably still feel victorious if it succeeds in taking a lead against Congress.
With respect to consultancy services in West Bengal or any other state, if they don’t belong to the state, their role tends to be limited. In Bengal, though Banerjee has taken their services, she has chosen not to be totally dependent on Kishor’s team. Besides, a rudimentary survey during several electoral seasons indicates that while the educated and economically well-off people give a lot of importance to discussing political issues, including the role of consultancy services, their participation in casting votes is less than that of the poor voters. And this also raises questions about the prospect of the educated political strategists’ style of campaigning having any actual impact on those who cast votes.
Chances of campaign aided by manufactured images/news, extensive media-coverage or even the much talked about consultancy services shaping electoral results in West Bengal may be viewed as slim. The impact of Covid-panic, political tension, negative campaigning and faulty electronic voting machines cannot be ignored. Nevertheless, this electoral battle is likely to be strongly dependent on the majority of voters’ decision to cast their votes for or against Mamata Banerjee.
Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has authored several books.