Padyatra in Bihar coincides with year-end state polls and provides alibi for his absence from the scene of action.
True to his word, Prashant Kishor (PK) has disclosed his future plans at the end of his year-long “sabbatical”—his bid to be the guiding spirit of Congress to hammer together an alternative to Narendra Modi in 2024 having come to naught, he has announced that he will seek to contact some 18, 000 people across Bihar over the next two months and on 2 October embark on a 3, 000 km padyatra crisscrossing Bihar. PK said he was starting a “political initiative” and not a political party. Jan Suraaj (Peoples’ good governance), the banner under which PK addressed the media in Patna, had a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi, with the words “Jan Suraaj” encircling the portrait in English and in Hindi. The venue of the launch of PK’s padyatra was referred to by him as “Gandhi Ashram in Champaran”. PK is seeking to project himself as a champion of the downtrodden. Mahatma Gandhi set up an ashram at Bhitiharwa, some 58 km away from the district headquarters, Bettiah (now in West Champaran district) in 1917 to guide the historic Champaran satyagraha, a movement of the oppressed indigo farmers of north Bihar. Kasturba Gandhi had carried the bricks which laid the foundation of the ashram. The symbolism accompanying the choice of Bhitiharwa by PK is all too apparent.
By being on padyatra from 2 October, PK will have a plausible alibi for his absence from the scene of action when polls are held in Gujarat and Himachal in end-2022. The contest in these states are between BJP, Congress and the new challenger, AAP. In none of these three setups PK’s strategy has been sought (in his parleys with Congress PK had refused to be drawn into Gujarat, Himachal). PK advised Narendra Modi in 2014 (he is credited with planning Modi’s popular initiative, chai pe charcha). Was engaged by the then Congress CM of Punjab, Amarinder Singh in 2017 (and initiated “Coffee with Amarinder”). He served both Nitish Kumar of JDU and Lalu Yadav of RJD when they had the short-lived Mahagathbandhan with Congress in Bihar in 2015. He has strategised for DMK, YSRCP, AAP, Trinamool Congress and recently his I-PAC tied up with TRS in Telangana. Besides, PK has parlayed with NCP’s Sharad Pawar and even tried to project him, or Mamata Banerjee as the possible head of a refurbished UPA. He has been a grasshopper so far. Now he seeks the grassroots (I will go to the “real masters”, he says).
PK is aware that the dominance of Nitish and Lalu in Bihar will be on the wane when the state Assembly polls are held in 2025. He therefore is projecting Jan Suraaj as a “platform for transforming Bihar”. He has said openly that in the past three decades when Lalu and Nitish ruled Bihar, little has been done to transmogrify the state. In 2018, PK had joined JDU and was made party’s vice president. His bonhomie with Nitish ended on a sour note when he was expelled from JDU in 2020. Differences of opinion on CAA were ascribed as the reason. JDU insiders say PK never emerged as a team player and Nitish had to choose between him and the party’s grassroots leaders. Nitish has maintained stoic silence on PK’s 5 May announcement. Soon after his discharge from Delhi hospital post his getting bail in the fodder scam, Lalu said that Prashant Kishor has come back to Bihar after wandering all across the country, as people everywhere else have sent him back—“Yahan unka koi thikana nahi rahega”.
Lalu’s RJD now has in its vanguard his second son, Tejashwi, who, in spite of his bitter relationship with elder brother Tej Pratap, has managed to steer his party to victory in Vidhan Sabha byelections as well as in Vidhan Parishad polls. PK’s bid to carve a niche in the post Lalu-Nitish scenario is an uphill task.
Padyatra, the tool PK seeks to harness, owes its origins to Mahatma Gandhi’s 1930 salt satyagraha—the Dandi march. In free India, former PM Chandrashekhar, as chief of Janata Party, walked from Kanyakumari to Delhi in 1983. In 2003, former Andhra CM, Y. Rajshekhar Reddy undertook a padyatra in undivided Andhra Pradesh in 2003 (his son, the present CM of residual AP, likewise undertook a 3,648 km long padyatra in 2019). Telugu Desam leader Chandrababu Naidu had undertaken a padyatra in 2013. In 2017, Congress leader and former Madhya Pradesh CM, Digvijaya Singh undertook a two-month-long Narmada yatra. PK’s padyatra will be viewed in the light of these earlier yatras, of which only some yielded electoral dividend.