Congress party president Sonia Gandhi (R) and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (blue turban) cross a police barricade during what the party calls as a "Save Democracy" march to parliament in New Delhi, May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi(reuters_tickers)
By Douglas Busvine and Rupam Jain
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prashant Kishor, the election campaign manager brought in by India's opposition Congress party to reverse its declining fortunes, knew his real work would begin when the party hit rock bottom. It looks like that moment has come.
The party run by the fabled Gandhi dynasty, which has led the world's largest democracy for most of its existence, suffered humiliation last week when it lost Assam to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a state election.
Congress had controlled Assam, in India's northeast, since 2001, and for the nationalist BJP it was a first. The race was not even close, underlining the crisis facing the mother-and-son team of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.
Two years ago they were eclipsed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a landslide national ballot won on promises of economic growth and a strong, modern India.
While the euphoria of that time has faded and Modi's agenda has been slowed by stalled reforms, other state election setbacks and devastating droughts hitting rural India, he remains comfortably the most popular politician.
The challenge for Rahul Gandhi, the public face of Congress' comeback, is to make up lost ground in time for the biggest test before a 2019 general election - the state vote next year in Uttar Pradesh, home to around 200 million people.
That, and the state of Punjab, will go a long way to defining who is the next prime minister; in 2014, the BJP won 71 of 80 parliamentary seats in Uttar Pradesh and only Sonia and Rahul Gandhi held theirs for Congress.
Rahul Gandhi declined to be interviewed for this article, but, in a series of public appearances that have become more frequent in recent months, he sought to target Modi directly.
"Modi talked about good days to come but today the country is reeling under drought and farmers are committing suicide," he told a recent "Save Democracy March" of a few thousand people in New Delhi. "Modi has nothing to say."
In an intriguing twist in the race for Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi has invited Kishor to help coordinate Congress' strategy, the same man who aided Modi's march to New Delhi with a campaign that embraced modern electioneering techniques and wowed voters.
Kishor now plans to bring those, and an intimate knowledge of the way Modi and the BJP operate, to a party that is widely seen as old-fashioned and overly reliant on the Gandhis.
The 38-year-old, who largely avoids the public eye but engages the press and senior party figures with increasing confidence, has a backroom team of researchers analysing census data to more effectively translate votes into seats.
That may mean targeting a particular caste or religion, for example.
Sources close to Kishor, who worked in health activism before being taken on as policy adviser to Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat state, said Kishor had "24/7" access to Gandhi, although he did not decide his day-to-day movements.
Kishor is determined to move away from a system of patronage, inject a sense of urgency and bring in fresh faces from the grassroots level upwards, even if it means upsetting the Congress establishment.
And, reflecting a growing interest in politics rather than focussing on number crunching, Kishor wants to portray Congress as the only inclusive national party in India, the sources said.
The BJP has been accused of stifling free speech and promoting a Hindu-first agenda to appeal to the country's majority at the expense of significant minorities, including around 170 million Muslims.
"We are a party of all, for all and by all," said Jyotiraditya Scindia, a Congress parliamentarian, and, in his mid-40s, is of Gandhi's generation and one of the party's "new guard".
"The only other national party, which is the BJP, is not representative of pan-India, because it is not of all, it is not by all and it is not for all."
Kishor is understood to want to launch a "new face" to lead the Uttar Pradesh campaign, which could be Gandhi, his popular sister Priyanka or someone else. Congress officials and Kishor declined to comment.
Separately, a party source said this week that Gandhi's long-awaited promotion to take over Congress from his mother might happen "sooner than you think".
Kishor, for one, is realistic about Congress' chances of catching up with the BJP.
"We are way behind the curve," said a source familiar with his thinking. "The total collapse of the party isn't something we can ignore."
In a party steeped in tradition, secrecy and deference, enthusiasm for Kishor is not universal.
"Indian politics is not susceptible to modern, professional analysis," said one former Congress cabinet member. "You get it right, you're lucky; you get it wrong, you're unlucky."
Indian media have also reported on the campaign manager's frustration at Gandhi's reluctance to take quick decisions, and on speculation that Kishor would resign.
Kishor's organisation, Indian Political Action Committee, published two tweets to address the rumours.
"Question of quitting is nothing but wild speculation. We are deeply honoured by the responsibility and totally committed to the job," one said.
"Grateful for the opportunity and the trust shown by the Congress, its leadership and each & every worker for their faith in us," read the second.
As Kishor works behind the scenes, Rahul is re-emerging on the national stage to take the fight to Modi. Congress loyalists say Gandhi returned a changed man from a sabbatical in a secret location in early 2015.
"He ... discovered his inner politician," said Shashi Tharoor, a prominent Congress lawmaker. "He's active in parliament. He's more confident. His repartee shows he can think on his feet."
Since Kishor joined Gandhi's team a few months ago, the leader has set a frenetic pace, joining student protesters on the barricades, showing solidarity with drought-hit farmers and hitting the campaign trail up and down the country.
He has landed rhetorical blows on Modi, taking the floor of parliament in March to liken a tax amnesty announced in the budget to a skin-lightening cream that turns black money white.
ANY CHANCE IN UTTAR PRADESH?
The latest state polls, which also included Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal where regional parties expectedly dominated, suggest that Gandhi's impact has been limited so far.
State polls are especially important for the BJP because state legislators elect members of the upper house of parliament where Modi's goods and services tax bill is stuck because it does not have a majority.
Some of Modi's closest advisers say they are more worried about Kishor's involvement with Congress than about Gandhi, given his impact on Modi's victory and inside knowledge of the way he thinks.
But political analysts say Modi should not lose too much sleep for now.
The BJP vote is expected to hold up relatively well in Uttar Pradesh as things stand, and the two main regional parties are well placed to fend off Congress, said Sanjay Kumar at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.
"They can't in their wildest imagination form a government in Uttar Pradesh. The race for Congress is not to be a distant fourth."
As for Gandhi, BJP leaders are dismissive.
"What do you relaunch?" asked M.J. Akbar, a former Congress spokesman who joined Modi's BJP before the 2014 election. "He's already been launched. He's been in an active leadership position since before the 2014 election."
(Additional reporting by Aditya Kalra and Mayank Bhardwaj; Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Mike Collett-White)