TNM breaks down what happens behind the scenes at political consultancy firms hired by parties like the DMK, TMC and the AIADMK.

A collage of Edappadi Palaniswami Prashant Kishor MK Stalin and Mamata Banerjee
news 2021 TAMIL NADU ASSEMBLY ELECTION Saturday, March 27, 2021 - 13:09

Twenty-somethings sit glued to their laptops- most at their desk, some on bean bags overlooking the Chennai skyline - in the 11th floor office of a co-working space in the heart of the city. Music blares from one corner of the large office set-up. This isn’t your average start-up. These youngsters are cogs in the machine that is the Indian Political Action Committee. I-PAC, a political consultancy group founded by Prashant Kishor, has received a large chunk of the credit for election victories of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, and thereafter Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab, Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh and Arvind Kejriwal in New Delhi. Ahead of the 2021 Assembly elections, the team is now managing the election strategy of the DMK in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. 

Since I-PAC formally teamed up with the DMK in February 2020, the firm and in particular Prashant Kishor has come under attack from the ruling AIADMK. Taking a swipe at archrival the DMK, Minister D Jayakumar alleged that the real leader of the opposition party was not MK Stalin but Prashant Kishor. Of course, the DMK was quick on the counter offensive, accusing the AIADMK of being led by Sunil Kanugolu, whose Mindshare Analytics has been hired by the ruling party for the 2021 elections. Incidentally, Sunil, who also worked along with Prashant Kishor for Modi’s 2014 campaign, handled the DMK’s political strategy from 2015 until April last year. 

While this war of words is par for the course in Tamil Nadu’s politics, the question that many - critics, party supporters and observers - ask is what exactly do these poll strategists do? TNM spoke to sources in I-PAC and in the AIADMK camp to break down what happens behind the scenes. TNM reached out to Sunil's Mindshare Analytics but they remained tight-lipped on operations. 

More than ad campaigns and WhatsApp groups

First, what a political consultancy firm like I-PAC isn’t. “People think we are just any other agency, or company or any other consulting firm which manages things here. We are not those. We are not an agency to design advertising, to decide what collateral (election paraphernalia) and how much quantity etc. That would be a very small part and very operational thing,” explains a source in I-PAC. 

He says that I-PAC is also not just about data crunching and analytics or digital campaigning. “People have got the concept wrong. They think that if they have 500 people on the ground, they will do a better job, they will have a stronger WhatsApp team, they will win. It’s not about that.” 

Half their job, he reveals, is getting the mandate from the leader and making him/her listen to you. “50% it’s about understanding each and every issue that is going on here, understanding  what is required in terms of solution. Every state is a different problem statement. 50% is getting to understand and that the leader is buying into our idea,” says the source at I-PAC.

I-PAC’s team in Tamil Nadu comprises 700-800 core members spread across districts. The organisation has an additional 2500-3000 volunteers who they interact with regularly and engage in different capacities. A majority of these core members belong to Tamil Nadu. “Only three or four of us don’t know Tamil,” he admits. But what they lack in language, they make up in experience of past campaigns, he says. 

I-PAC office in Chennai

The average age of an I-PAC member is 25-26, with people coming from different backgrounds, having different educational and professional skill sets. “We also have people from across ideologies. “It is a general mix of what you would see as a society reflective of what’s happening here,” chips in another I-PAC team member. 

In comparison, Sunil’s firm, which is managing the AIADMK campaign, is smaller. “The team has less than 100 members including districts,” says a source in the AIADMK camp. However, unlike at I-PAC, which interacts directly down to the cadre level, Sunil’s firm operates only with the party leadership. 

Both consultancy groups have multiple teams that perform varied tasks and roles.  

First, the field team. Considered the footsoldiers of the organisation, they map every constituency. “Whatever we draw here on the whiteboard, it is their responsibility to get it executed on the ground. They act as an interface or a bridge between us and the party people there,” says the source at I-PAC, who adds that the firm has two field members at every constituency in Tamil Nadu. 

An AIADMK campaign source says that the field team is tasked with finding out what is happening on the ground. 

The PIU or the political intelligence unit works parallel to the field team. However, this 15-20 member strong team in I-PAC works from the Chennai office. Explaining the function of the PIU, the I-PAC source says, “My field team is telling me something, how do i believe it? You need to have a parallel structure which can actually go and audit, and scan alternate perspectives. If they both match then ok, if they don’t then you have to debate and settle.”

The PIU team works with a network of close to 5000 ‘influencers’, who are teachers, lawyers, grassroot level workers of the DMK, social activists who know about local issues. “The PIU team calls them and generates what is happening there. And then we match it with our field team,” he says. 

Then, there’s the strategic research and innovation team that churns out data points, provides fresh perspectives and provides speech inputs to leaders. This team at I-PAC played a vital role in shaping DMK’s 10-year vision document. 

Election paraphernalia made by I-PAC for door-to-door campaigning

The data and tech team captures all data generated from the campaigns. “We do an analysis of that. That’s how we know what kind of people are coming towards us, what kind of people are still missing etc,” says the I-PAC source, adding that the team also developed an app, which operates like DMK’s very own social media platform, and a website.  

Another Chennai-based team is the digital media team that handles social media platforms, as well as the app and website. The social media team also looks at where the party is being most searched on the internet. I-PAC’s digital media team works in tandem with the DMK’s IT wing, says the source.  

The media team interacts with news organisations across the state and country, as well stringers at the districts, providing regular updates on the campaigns. This team in I-PAC is the point of contact for media persons who want to fix interviews with leaders.  

And finally, there is the central campaign team that oversees the execution of decisions. The source in the AIADMK camp says, “The central team sits in the head office, they create a final decision. And that will be presented to the party, which will take a final call.”  

The source at I-PAC says the team compiles a daily report on how the DMK is faring across constituencies. “We triangulate what is doing good for us, which issue is turning positive for us, which Assembly constituency we are leading, which issue we are trailing - all of it. We have graphs of how DMK vote share is faring in the state, how AIADMK vote share is faring in the state, young people’s mood, old, middle age, rural, urban, male, female, caste-wise, religion-wise everything. We have this on a daily basis,” he emphasises. 

So while both firms give inputs on everything from the creation of political manifestos to candidate selection, the party takes the final call including on matters of alliance. 

Incumbent vs opposition strategy 

And although the team structures are largely the same, the campaigns and strategies are completely different. The AIADMK camp’s campaign revolves only around Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami.  As a result, the strategy in the run-up to the polls has been different, with the source revealing that the political consultancy group that was engaged much before electrons provides inputs on how to create a positive outlook of government announcements. 

Pointing to the difference in Mamata’s campaign in West Bengal and Stalin’s in Tamil Nadu, the source at I-PAC says, “There she is the incumbent CM, she had to roll out multiple government programmes. One was Duare Duare Sarkar which means government at your doorstep.Something similar you couldn’t have done here. Here Stalin would do it in a different manner - he would launch Ungal Thoguthiyil Stalin where he would say here are the boxes in every constituency - you drop it here and once I become the CM, my first 100 days are dedicated to solving these problems. So the basics remain the same- you want to solve people’s problems. One you are able to solve right now because they are incumbent, and the other when they come to power.”

The source who is part of the AIADMK campaign, however, says that unlike their more high-profile counterpart, Mindshare Analytics prefers to remain in the shadows. “People on the ground are aware of I-PAC. The disadvantage is that whatever happens in the election, I-PAC also gets the credit. Here the CM gets an advantage because this company is in the shadows. So whatever the CM is doing, people will say that it is by him.”

A little over a year after signing up with the DMK, I-PAC has launched a series of campaigns beginning with Ondrinaivom Vaa, which provided relief amid the COVID-19 pandemic last year. The team also carried out an online membership drive for the DMK, while another campaign called Vidiyalai Nokki Stalinin Kural (Stalin’s voice towards the dawn) had top leaders such as Kanimozhi, A Raja and Udhayanidhi Stalin criss-crossing the state to interact with farmers, weavers and others.

Given that the political consultancy works right down to the cadre level, there has been some friction at the ground level. However, the I-PAC team dismisses the issue, saying, “It’s a natural thing. We know people inside DMK who won’t like it. I can't be upset about it, it happens everywhere. We know that everything will fall in line if MK Stalin has complete confidence in us, so we start by building that confidence. And we start by making sure the entire leadership is on board with every idea. They soon realise that both our end goals are the same.”  

So what happens post counting day on May 2? Does the team stay on with Stalin come what may? “We will go to some other state,” says the source, who emphasises that unlike in the West, political consultants in India cannot join the administration if the party ends up winning the election. “Here you have a bureaucracy for policymaking. I-PAC cannot do it, we are a political consultancy organisation, we can’t have a stake or role in the government.” 

Moreover, the firm isn’t bound by a non-compete clause and can work with any other party in the future. The source says, “We attach ourselves on a temporary basis and this is the model that has worked.” 

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