Political consulting firms, who have worked with rival political parties have access to a lot of insider information, making this a real risk, writes Anand Kumar RS.

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Voices Opinion Friday, February 14, 2020 - 17:44

In the business of building political brands in India, Prashant Kishor or PK to many, has now emerged as the undisputed numero uno. In a short period of under ten years, since he started his career with then Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the Gujarat state election in 2011, he has indeed come a long way.

The ease and manner with which he and his organisation Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC) have managed to segue from one political party to another irrespective of ideology and geography is now a subject of shock and awe.

Shock because, till he was recently expelled from Janata Dal (United), a BJP ally, PK was its serving Vice President and that didn’t stop West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee from hiring him to help her to fight BJP in her state. And awe because, PK’s client list reads like the who’s who of Indian politics from national parties like BJP and Congress to regional parties like Janata Dal (United), Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and the like.  

And very recently, in the south, after YSR Congress (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh, DMK has become the second party to sign up I-PAC and in effect, PK as its political strategist for the Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections in 2021. This news was made public via a tweet by the DMK President Stalin recently. Welcome to the era of commoditization of Indian parties where ideology takes a back seat while marketing, brand positioning, catching eyeballs, mindshare retention and at the end winning, reign supreme.

The non-compete clause

This brings us to the central issue of this piece which is the politics of political strategists. And then there is the question of conflict of interest arising out of aligning with parties with competing ideologies, who are rank competitors. In the business of advertising, brands/companies sign agreements with non-compete clauses with advertising agencies and other strategic consulting companies. Under these agreements, agencies cannot sign up with brands/companies in the competing space not just during the currency of the agreement but also for a mutually agreed cooling-off period. The reasons behind signing such agreements are obvious. No company in this highly competitive era can afford any leak of trade secrets. A brand communication partner would have knowledge of the current and future road map of their clients, their strengths and weaknesses and hence no agreement is complete without non-disclosure clauses and non-compete clauses.

Such clauses have been part of hiring contracts of senior executives as well. Even in the highly competitive world of sports and games, similar clauses exist. I doubt if a coach of one IPL team in a season can sign up as a coach for another team the next season without a cooling-off period. The same holds good in the world of showbiz too.

I have nothing personal against the likes of PK or his organisation but cannot stop wondering why in India’s political space, there is no such non-compete clause while signing on election strategists, looking at the way election strategists have moved on from one party to another. A political party today is akin to a corporate entity and its leader to a brand. So, while companies are so protective about their brand strategies and rightly so, how come, in India we don’t see such sensitivity among political parties and their leaders while collaborating with political strategists?

From in-house campaign manager to professionals

In media interactions, PK has maintained that I-PAC, an organisation which he founded, is on its own now and his role is limited to mentoring and giving wise counsel when needed. This was when someone questioned him on the possible conflict of interest when he became a full-time member of Janata Dal (United) while I-PAC was working with other parties. Now that he has been expelled, it is not known if he is back in I-PAC on a full-fledged role. The I-PAC website carries quite a few references of PK and his work for different political outfits under its own umbrella.

It’s not just PK who is involved with competing parties in the same space. John Arockiasamy, who was associated with PMK in 2016 under the aegis of JPG-PAC, then went on to work with the Congress in Karnataka in 2018.  Reportedly, he has been in discussion with AIADMK in Tamil Nadu to be its political consultant.  

Before the advent of PK as a professional election strategist, parties mostly relied on in-house talent for running their campaigns. And they used to work largely with advertising agencies for executing the campaigns in a conventional style just like any other product. For Congress, Jairam Ramesh used to be their election war room manager for years. For BJP, Pramod Mahajan and then Arun Jaitley used to play these roles. So, the possibility of poll strategies getting leaked to rival camp or an espionage operation was limited.

I guess that it is after the advent of digital and social media that we see the outsourcing of campaigns to external agencies by political parties gaining traction. Data analytics is the buzz word today in all fields and so too in election management. This needs specialists and hence parties have no choice but to engage with professional organisations who provide end to end election management solutions from strategy conception to last-mile execution. Execution involves back room warriors who work 24*7 on social media and feet on street who do the booth-level mapping and campaigning.

The potential of social media vehicles like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to enable stories to go viral in no time is unparalleled today. This is a boon and at times a bane. Political consulting firms who have worked with rival political parties have access to a lot of insider information on these parties. And hence there is a real risk of such sensitive information getting leaked online and going viral in no time. Also, I wonder how demographic and psychographic data collected as part of one party campaign is firewalled and not used for another party later on. Memories of Cambridge Analytica, the famed British political consultancy firm that got caught adopting unethical practices have not faded away.

Hence, it is all the more intriguing that political parties in India so far have not considered incorporating non-competing clause while signing up consulting firms. In this politics of political strategists, what are we missing?

Post script: In Tamil Nadu, where films follow politics and vice versa, two big films of last year – LKG and NGK featured election strategists in key roles. A clear sign that these external poll strategists are here to stay.

Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and an avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business, and films. Views are author’s own.