Lucknow, Mar 20, 2017 : As the Congress searches for an explanation for its rock-bottom performance in Uttar Pradesh, a poster, put up at the party office in the state capital of Lucknow, pointed a very large finger: Find Prashant Kishor, Congress strategist. The hoarding, which was taken down Saturday morning, offered a five-lakh award, and made no attempt to conceal the identity of the purveyor. In fact, it bragged a large photo of him: Rajesh Singh, a Congressman for more than two decades who has served four times as a secretary for the UP Congress.
For his missive against Mr Kishor, the politician was suspended on Sunday from the party for six years. The penalty was declared at a meeting held over the weekend between Raj Babbar, the actor-turned-politician who was made president of the Congress in UP ahead of the election, and the modest group of seven newly-elected state legislators from the party. This is the Congress’ worst performance in India’s most-populous state and the homestead of the party’s Gandhi dynasty.
"I stand by what I did. Prashant Kishor took us for a ride. We are honest workers who have given our blood and sweat for the party. Yet our views in the election were totally ignored. This (defeat) is the result of hiring these consultants who are out to make a quick buck," Mr Singh alleged.
Mr Kishor, who is in his late 30s, was credited with abetting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s huge victory in 2014. Then, two years later, he signed up with the Congress to handle its election campaign in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The hill state of Uttarakhand was a late addition to his tasks. The Congress won Punjab but was totally eclipsed in UP and Uttarakhand, where the PM led his party to a walloping majority.
Captain Amarinder Singh, the 75-year-old Chief Minister of Punjab, has acknowledged Mr Kishor’s role in his victory- the sole bright spot for the Congress in a spate of recent elections.
In two other states- Goa and Manipur- where the Congress won the most seats, it blew its shot at forming the government with ineffectual and slow negotiations with regional parties. The BJP is now in power in both.
Rahul Gandhi, who is running the Congress - his mother and party chief Sonia Gandhi is unwell - has been sheltered from accountability by a series of colleagues upholding the party tradition of unquestioning allegiance to their First Family.
Mr Gandhi left the country late last week to spend time with his mother abroad and will escort her home, the Congress said, without elaborating on timelines or where the Gandhis are.
Mr Kishor, who embraced modern electioneering techniques, was loaned out to the Congress by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has given him the rank of a cabinet minister as a thank you for the role the strategist played in his re-election in 2015.
He largely avoids the public eye but engages the press and senior party figures regularly and has a backroom team of researchers analysing census data to more effectively translate votes into seats. During the UP campaign, he repeatedly clashed with stalwarts like Ghulam Nabi Azad over his choices, and failed to persuade Mr Gandhi’s popular sister, Priyanka, to step up as the presumptive Chief Minister.
He was one of the driving forces of the Congress’ alliance with Akhilesh Yadav, the 43-year-old who lost his bid to return as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Of a possible 403 seats, Mr Yadav’s Samajwadi Party won 47; the Congress landed seven. In Mr Gandhi’s parliamentary constituency of Amethi, the BJP won three of five assembly seats, a considerable humiliation for the Congress leader.