Who won in 2014 and in Bihar? It was a victory for the message, not the postman

Prashant Kishor, a key election communication strategist for Narendra Modi in 2014 and, more recently, for the triumphant Nitish Kumar in Bihar, is hot property these days. An Economic Times report says the Congress wants him for its Uttar Pradesh campaign in 2017. The report also hints that feelers have been sent by Trinamool Congress and AIADMK, both of whom face assembly elections in 2016.




Without in any way denying Kishor’s undoubted skills in election campaign messaging, here is a simple point: it was not his expertise alone that brought Modi or Kumar their big wins. He did his bit, but the victories were the result of the messages Modi and Nitish represented in 2014 and 2015. Effective communication and strategising helped, but it was not the decisive factor.

The BJP would have lost Bihar even if Kishor had been batting for them, just as the UPA would have lost if he had been running the Congress Lok Sabha campaign in 2014. The mistake we make is to confuse the postman with the message he carries to the receiver. He is important for delivery, but he is not the message the receiver is looking for. If the letter contains good news, he may get a generous baksheesh, if not, he may get just sour looks.

Bihar was won by Nitish because he was seen as the man who delivered earlier, and the mere fact that he had tied up with a former baddie (Lalu Prasad Yadav) did not work against him. The BJP blundered by not providing a face to rival Nitish, or a positive message on why the electorate should vote BJP. Negative campaigning about Lalu’s “jungle raj”only confirmed the electorate’s suspicion that the party had nothing to offer beyond Modi’s charisma.

A similar mistake was made by Amit Shah not once but twice – in Delhi and Bihar. He packaged Modi as the message when Delhi and Bihar were looking for local leadership which could ensure delivery. Since Modi was not going to run Delhi or Bihar, the electorate duly elected someone who seemed likely to do the job.

In 2014, people saw Modi as the man to get things done at the centre when the rival camp only had backseat drivers – a mother-son partnership that professed disdain for the top job. Why elect someone who didn’t seem to want the job and anyway had screwed up when given the opportunity?

Prashant Kishor’s genius was to ensure that he took advantage of the winds in favour of the parties he worked for in 2014 and 2015, but he didn’t directly impact the final result. That was lost in the negative messaging of the losers.

Amit Shah’s mistake (or the BJP’s) was to presume that the easy wins in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand last year were due only to Modi. The fact is the Modi message worked because all the incumbent state governments had lost credibility. Shah should have got the message when the party failed to repeat its Lok Sabha results in the assembly elections in J&K (BJP was the largest party by vote share in the Lok Sabha polls, winning three of six seats, but could not repeat the feat in December 2014 when it came second). With a base only in Jammu, the BJP’s Mission 44 (the halfway mark) did not carry credibility in this Muslim-majority state. The Kashmir vote coalesced against BJP and the scored a duck in the valley despite strenuous efforts.
The moral of the story is simple: it is not the medium, but the message that matters. All parties now looking to Prashant Kishor to do his magic should first figure out if their message is what the electorate wants to hear.