For a man credited with the ability to make the wind blow where he wants, Prashant Kishor has stepped out into a strange calm of his own making. How long will it last? And where does this master strategist go from here?
Kishor says he will take a "temporary break from an active role in public life" --- an announcement that comes amid buzz that he could get a new responsibility in the Congress. The 44-year-old says he resigned as the advisor to the Punjab chief minister and is "yet to decide on my future course of action". He was appointed to the post in May; Punjab will have its Assembly elections next year.
It's the "temporary" in the Prashant Kishor break and the open-ended stance on his future that add an edge to the calm. Some call him Chanakya for his incredible strike rate as an election strategist; others are looking at him to catalyse opposition unity in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.
Kishor has been on the winning side in seven out of the eight elections he has strategised for (this does not include Bihar 2020, as he was not actively involved in that election).
His first success came with the stellar campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi, who rode to power with a sweeping majority and became the Prime Minister in 2014.
Then, a series of election wins kept him in the national spotlight. He helped the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal combine win in Bihar in 2015, just months after the BJP's landslide victory in the national elections.
He was with the Congress in 2017 when it took back Punjab from a BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) alliance. Successes came in Andhra Pradesh, where he strategised for Jaganmohan Reddy's YSRCP in 2019, and Delhi, where he sided with chief minister Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party in 2020.
Earlier this year, his I-PAC group helped the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) wrest Tamil Nadu after a decade. But, most importantly, it was his feat in West Bengal that propelled him to the national centrestage once again and positioned him as a hope for a rudderless opposition bloc.
In Bengal, the BJP was confident after having put up an impressive performance in 2019, when it won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats there. In came Kishor, invited by the Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Observers say Kishor crafted his strategies carefully, helping the TMC come up with schemes amplifying Banerjee's appeal, especially among women voters. The TMC emerged victorious in a fiercely and bitterly fought election with a massive mandate.
Nonetheless, the 2017 elections in Uttar Pradesh did not go well for Kishor, who sided with the Congress-Samajwadi Party (SP) combine. The mandate was overwhelming in favour of the BJP in India's most populous and politically crucial state.
There's a contrarian view that all of Kishor's wins --- from Punjab to Delhi to Tamil Nadu to Andhra --- were obvious, with him placing his bet on the frontrunner. There could be an argument, however, that Bengal was different, as the BJP rolled out all its big guns there and went aggressively for a win. Hence, it is the showing by the TMC (and Kishor) that has apparently buoyed the opposition camp, which is eyeing to take on the well-oiled election juggernaut of the BJP in 2024.
Since the May outcome, Kishor has met Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)'s Sharad Pawar behind closed doors more than once, sparking speculation about the happenings in the opposition camp.
Kishor also met former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his sister and party leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in mid-July. Initially, it was interpreted as a strategy meeting to quell dissent in the Punjab Congress amid differences between Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu (who was later made the state president). But soon, reports surfaced about a possible Kishor role in the Congress, though he maintains that politics is not his strong suit.
In fact, Kishor had joined Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar's JD(U) in 2018 but was expelled about two years later for not toeing the party line.
Cut to 5 August, 2021. The biggest question of the day is: after his return (it's just a matter of time), what role will Kishor play?
Will he be the binding factor working towards building so-called opposition unity? If yes, how will he do that -- as a strategist that he has always been, or as a member of a political party (read the Congress)?
Kishor has remained guarded about his next move and reports of his joining the Congress are still in the realm of speculation. But the Congress, reeling from a series of electoral loss and bitter infighting, could use someone like Kishor to breathe new life into its 136-year-old (and battered) structure.
His possible inclusion in the Congress in some capacity will also put to rest one key question in the run-up to 2024. For such a move will apparently indicate that there will be no so-called Third Front --- which has failed miserably in the past --- and that there will be no opposition unity without the Congress despite its frail health, as some observers have already indicated in the recent past.
For now, the ball is in Kishor's court. It's a wait-and-watch period in Indian politics. Things can only get more interesting from here.
Kishor, obviously, doesn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.