The victories of the DMK and the Trinamool have turned the spotlight on the political action committee that worked with their campaigns
In both cases, the parties were successful: one returned to power with a huge mandate and the other defeated the ruling party and captured power. The victories turned the spotlight on the I-PAC and its good record with campaign management (the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, in which Mr. Kishor’s team worked with the Congress party’s campaign, is the only blemish on its record, so far).
Mr. Kishor, the public face of the I-PAC, chucked a job in public health in the United Nations and was associated with Narendra Modi’s campaign in 2014, under the aegis of an organisation called Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG). After the 2014 poll, however, Mr. Kishor and the Modi team parted ways. There are different accounts on why this happened, but all versions agree that Mr. Kishor did not find space in a set-up where current Home Minister Amit Shah was ruling the roost, resulting in some of the toughest grudge matches being fought between the two in polls across the country.
What followed was a difficult period for him and the three associates from CAG who followed him out of the Modi war room — Pratik Jain and Rishi Raj Singh, both former IITians, and Vinesh Chandel from the National Law Institute University, Bhopal.
In late 2014, however, the group decided to take over the campaign for the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) for the 2015 Assembly poll in the State. Mr. Kumar had aligned with the Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to take on the BJP, fresh from the Modi wave. Mr. Kishor’s team went about setting up the I-PAC, and was operating at first from a shed in a ministerial bungalow in Patna. Mr. Kishor was operating out of Mr. Kumar’s residence on Anne Marg in the city.
Staff was recruited from eager youngsters looking for a taste of political campaigns. The strange thing about the new organisation was that Mr. Kishor has no stake in the organisation. He is neither a director nor does he hold a formal position in the hierarchy. The three directors are Mr. Rishi Raj Singh, Mr. Pratik Jain and Mr. Vinesh Chandel. “This too was set up because rent agreements, contracts with vendors, etc. required an entity to sign,” says Mr. Singh.
The three directors are at the top of the leadership hierarchy in the organisation and are joined by Esha Alagh, a graduate of Miranda House, Delhi University. Below this team is a set of executive committees that takes care of specific teams. The organisation sets up offices in places where their clients are located and have a back-up office in Hyderabad. Mr. Kishor’s role in all this, says Mr. Singh, is more like a “mentor”, and all agree that it is his brand recall that attracts a lot of the political parties. “We provide a 360 degree range for a political campaign, from initial surveys, to micro issues, campaigns, district wise flagging of issues, continuous seat calling, etc., the team expands and contracts as required, but the core leadership is what has been there from the beginning,” says Mr. Chandel, one of the directors.
The average age of employees is between 25 and 26 years and of diverse backgrounds and skill sets. “There is even a doctor who gave up a position in AIIMS to join us,” says Mr. Rishi Raj Singh.
Mr. Kishor disses the fact that he may have birthed the professionalisation of political campaigns in India. “Every politician standing for polls will look for the best resources for managing the campaign, either from within the party or even kin groups. I like to keep things simple, the real tack is to convince the leader that we can add value to the campaign messaging, bring scale and bring it to the wider work. We work as an invisible force, not really the way that it’s done in the United States, for example,” he told The Hindu.
The campaign in Bihar was a runaway success, with the Mahagathbandhan storming to power and Mr. Nitish Kumar becoming Chief Minister for the third time. Some of the things tried in that campaign were repeated elsewhere — close alignment with the top leader, projecting a face, doing micro-level messaging and district level feedbacks, etc.
For a while, Mr. Kishor looked like he was going to grow political roots in Bihar. His close relationship with Mr. Kumar was said to have influenced the latter in seeing him as a political heir. That did not work out and the complications of party politics saw Mr. Kishor exit Bihar and work with Capt. Amarinder Singh in Punjab and the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, a year of mixed success for the I-PAC.
Subsequent campaigns in Andhra Pradesh with the YSR Congress Party (General Election 2019), Maharashtra with the Shiv Sena (Assembly poll 2019) and Delhi with the Aam Aadmi Party (Assembly poll 2020) saw more success come to the I-PAC. In all these, the question of larger party structures and their relationship with the I-PAC also came up. “That we are not from within the party structure helps with the fact that we are entering the space without a bias, a lack of political stakes, so to speak,” says Ms. Alagh.
There have been frequent reports that old timers in parties have resented the I-PAC teams, especially the close relationship Mr. Kishor insists on having with the top leader of the party that he is working with. In several cases, he has had a strong say even in ticket distribution. Usually, resenting second-rung leaders have fallen in line once orders from the top were made clear.
Over the years, the I-PAC has worked with a range of parties which has led to the accusation that the organisation is ideologically promiscuous, especially in India where professional campaign organisations are rare. Mr. Pratik Jain is quick to point out that the I-PAC is “not a gun for hire”. “The vision of the I-PAC is that of a political action committee, the first of its kind in India,” he says. The clients, they say, have been on “one side of the balance”, largely neutral parties or non-NDA. The one NDA party they worked with since 2014 was the Shiv Sena, in the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly poll. (Currently, the Shiv Sena is out of the NDA and is with the Maha Vikas Aghadi, an alliance with the Congress and the NCP).
With Mr. Kishor declaring that he was “leaving the space” of campaigning, what lies ahead for the I-PAC? The founders are hoping that their track record and experience will help them keep the organisation in business, and that Mr. Kishor’s declaration that he would like to do “the things he wants to do” would not cut him off from the I-PAC. In India’s contested political landscape, however, the organisation can, in all honesty, pride itself for striking a maverick path.
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