While the poll strategist Prashant Kishor has recently been in the spotlight, after he announced his decision to join Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), on 16 September, the inner workings of his political advocacy group, the Indian Political Action Committee, has evaded public attention. Just four days after Kishor’s announcement, IPAC conducted a poll at its main office in Hyderabad, to determine the political party with which its employees were keen on campaigning for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But according to a former and a current employee of IPAC, both of whom were present for and participated in the poll, the BJP was the chosen party despite an apparent consensus to work with the Congress.
Though the IPAC management is yet to officially announce to the staff that the advocacy group would be campaigning with the BJP, the two employees said the result had been manipulated to align with the party. “The way they conducted the poll was quite shabby,” the current employee said. “It was a sham. It was a way for the company to convince its employees—who already knew in their hearts of hearts that they would be working for the BJP.” The employee’s primary complaint was not that IPAC would be working for the BJP, but the manner in which the organisation made the announcement. “They could have done it better. They could have told the employees: ‘Listen guys, we are working for the BJP. You guys can be professional. This is what we got you here for.’”
The poll was preceded by a curious sequence of events that month. On 9 September, while interacting with students at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, Kishor declared that he will not be campaigning with anyone “in the manner and form” that he has been working in since the 2014 elections. The next day, IPAC’s management held an informal poll at the Golkonda Hotel in Hyderabad, asking employees to indicate, by show of hands, which party they would like to work for. According to the former employee, who was present at the hotel, an overwhelming number of people showed their support for the Congress.
Two days after informal poll, Avinash Tiwari, IPAC’s head of human resources, sent out an official email on behalf of the “Management Committee” informing the staff of a formal poll to be conducted on 20 September. Tiwari wrote that “the exercise to determine our partner (BJP or INC) for 2019 national campaign is going to be through a voting process.” The process entailed two phases—a consultation process from 12–19 September, followed by voting the next day. The email also called upon employees to “keep in mind that this exercise is being conducted to determine whom I-PAC should collaborate with and not for whom one would personally vote for.”
On the day of final poll, on 20 September, the two employees said that the staff was given three options: to campaign with the BJP, with the Congress or with either of them. Three polling booths were set up and the voting process was conducted from 11 am to 2 pm. The electoral rolls for each booth show a total of 276 voters. The former employee said IPAC comprises around 400–450 employees across several departments, including media, data, field teams, social media analytics and a political investigation unit. According to the current employee, “almost the entire strength of the organisation” voted in the poll “barring the teams that are currently handling work on campaigning in the Andhra Pradesh assembly elections.”
The counting of votes was carried out in the evening, and Tiwari was among the management staff overseeing the counting of votes. The results were declared at around 8 pm. “There were barely 10–15 people waiting to witness it,” the former employee recalled. “Though the announcers and the rest of the inner team tried to clap and all, no one else joined them in wanting to believe their rigging tale.” After I spoke to the former employee about the 20 September poll, I contacted the current employee, who corroborated the claims.
“I am not really sure what they were looking for while doing this,” the current employee said. “Internal validation doesn’t make much of a difference in a professional organisation.” The employee did, however, add that “the bulk of the office—considering their ideological inclinations—would have said that they would want to work for the Congress.” The poll results, the current employee said, “basically works to reinforce the fact that IPAC is working for BJP. The results were pretty much white-washed.”
The former employee, too, told me the poll was “an attempt to gain legitimacy for choosing BJP.” He said the IPAC management had started pressurising its employees because “the inner team couldn’t see the organisation being taken over by the liberals … They want a campaign team which is fully liberal mukt.”
The advocacy group positioning itself with the BJP would not create a conflict of interest with Prashant Kishore’s decision to join the JD(U). Documents obtained from the ministry of corporate affairs’s database show that Kishor does not have any official involvement with IPAC on paper. The database identifies three directors of the company IPAC Consulting Private Limited—Pratik Jain, Rishi Raj Singh and Vinesh Kumar Chandel. Kishore’s name is not among the team members listed on IPAC’s website either. The two employees corroborated Kishore’s official distance with the organisation. “At least on paper, he has nothing to do with the affairs of the companies,” the former employee said, noting that Kishor functions more as “mentor” to the advocacy group. However, the current employee added that Kishor continues to occupy a “prime position” within the company and said “a large chunk of business of the company comes in his name.”
This distinction between IPAC and Kishore’s work, however, may become blurred in the future. On the day of the poll, the IPAC staff also received an email from the organisation’s “Leadership Team” informing them of an “opportunity” to “assist Prashant in his political endeavour.” The email stated: “I-PAC has the opportunity to send 4-5 members from within our team who can potentially be a part of this.” The email provides no clarity on what the status of these employees would be—whether they would be considered members of the I-PAC staff or JD(U) workers. The email also notes that the position would be on a “rotation basis” with people “switched back every 3 months.”
Tiwari did not respond to my email about the poll. As a result, the margin by which BJP emerged the chosen party for IPAC’s poll remains unclear, but the two employees have maintained that the results were manipulated. “I don’t want to put it this way, but I guess, election manipulation starts pretty close to home,” the current employee said.