Fundamental Issues with Political consulting

Economic Times reported that an internal review was conducted by the Congress Party to understand its failure in Uttar Pradesh elections. I found one point in this report interesting.

‘The mismatch with Team PK has been cited as another key reason for the defeat. Most candidates complained that Prashant Kishor’s team gave little or no support to them, was absent in most constituencies and ended up complicating things for candidates where they turned up. Frontal organisation members said that Kishor and his team only worked to undermine Congress and had collected data that it could misuse in 2019.’

Prashant Kishor in the past has consulted the successful campaigns of the BJP and the JD(U). The USP of this breed of consulting is its ability to use specialised private sector tools like big data analytics on political space ranging from national to booth level. They facilitate messaging and campaigning across all media – electronic, print, door-door and social media platforms (whatsapp, twitter, facebook etc.). While these skillset requirements have brought in a wide array of specialists and technocrats into the political domain, question still remains to be largely fundamental – loyalty. Basic issue with political consulting is that this consulting by its very definition, political.

Closest analogy to this would be how a politician switching a party is treated (in this example, the politician is changing party due to its winnability and his short-medium term prospects). A politician though viewed with suspicion by his new colleagues does bring in cadre and core voters. He will need to spend a substantial time setting up his career in the new party and to get acceptance by his colleagues.

Same cannot be said the same about political consultants. Much like private sector consulting, there is no real ‘skin-in-the-game’ (read Taleb to know what I mean). In fact, in one of my interactions with a political consultant, I asked him how would he work with a party if there were sharp political differences? He replied that he worked with leaders for their leadership abilities and not with parties. No surprise then that party cannot fully support an outsider and vice versa.  While skills that are brought in are useful, they often tend to be very short term engagements, like say an election.

Downside to political parties are high. Consultants do not merely provide an agnostic service like streamlining operations etc., but often collect data, strategies and at times manage the entire election. These form trade secrets of the political parties. With minimal trade secret protection available in India for any sector (private as well), a mere contract may not be sufficient to instil confidence among both the consultant and the client.

In this backdrop, one more contradiction comes to the fore. Political party, normally bound by ideology and party line has singular organisational goal of improving party prospects. Consultants, on the other hand, might have a contradictory goal of increasing its clientele either to understand the space better or to hedge risks or simply to make more money.

A few options come to my mind. (very nascent thought process so far, so bear with me)

Consulting firms may want to provide some of its services as products and decision making tools that are party agnostic and reduce its involvement. Further engagement and intelligence may continue to be offered as a service. This may sound unrealistic as subjectivity remains high in a diverse country like India. But, separate projects and assignments dedicated to specific regions and micro-geographies can be achieved. (this is unlikely to happen as politics involves human element more than other fields)

Consultants may consider embracing a broad political or ideological stand. This is a useful signalling to political parties and its members and adds a layer of ideological security for parties before accepting services.  The flip side is that it reduces the possible number of clients. If not ideological, broad value goals need to be embraced and disclosed publicly.

Consultants will have to change the way they perceive politicians and deal with political parties. Quite rightly, the legitimacy of a consultant is and will be questioned continuously. To short circuit one’s way into politics may backfire and is not a useful strategy. Politicians are more than happy to acknowledge thought leaders of other sectors, but are insecure of their own and consultants should not appear to be usurping their raison detre.

I personally feel political consulting would do well for itself if it takes a political stand rather than garb of  apolitical neutrality.

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