In April, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leader KT Rama Rao confirmed that the state’s ruling party had hired Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) to advise it on the campaign for elections in Telangana due before December 2023.
Around the same time, Prashant Kishor, who once officially headed the political consulting firm, was in talks to join the Congress, which eventually didn’t happen.
For more than eight years now, I-PAC has been helping Indian political parties in their electoral campaigns and emerge victorious in almost all cases. Although Kishor has announced that he has quit I-PAC, he remains the undisputed pioneer of political consulting in India and a mentor of the firm credited with changing the nature of election campaigning in the world’s largest democracy.
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In 2013, Kishor, along with a group of like-minded professionals, started Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), a non-profit, to help improve electoral outcomes. Two years later, CAG was renamed I-PAC.
The success streak
I-PAC’s success streak began in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when Kishor, who then headed CAG, was credited with helping lead the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi to a resounding victory in the general elections.
Kishor strategized the campaign for Modi that included initiatives such as chai pe charcha street-corner chats, 3D rallies, run for unity and manthan, aimed at reaching out to young Indians.
Since then, I-PAC has worked with a diverse set of leaders including Janata Dal-United’s Nitish Kumar (Bihar, 2015), Congress’s Captain Amarinder Singh (Punjab, 2017), Congress’s Rahul Gandhi (Uttar Pradesh, 2017), YSR Congress’s Jagan Mohan Reddy (Andhra Pradesh, 2019), Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray (Maharashtra, 2019), Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal (Delhi, 2020), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s MK Stalin (Tamil Nadu, 2021) and Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal, 2021) and TMC’s Goa campaign in 2021.
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Except Rahul Gandhi’s campaign in the 2017 UP elections and TMC’s Goa campaign of 2021, I-PAC has been successful everywhere else in bringing its client to power.
I-PAC says its task is to primarily act as a force multiplier, working with political parties to strengthen their capacities and to channelize their efforts in improving overall electoral outcomes.
“The idea is to give the Indian youth a unique platform where they are not only able to participate but also create impact at scale in the political affairs and governance of the country,” said Rishi Raj Singh, one of the three directors of I-PAC.
Towards this endeavor, said an I-PAC spokesperson, the consulting firm provides support using its expertise in key areas including grassroots campaign execution, data crunching, primary and secondary research and technology initiatives as well as traditional and new-age media and communication.
Foot soldiers, the USP
Over the past few years, increasing internet penetration has turned Indian elections into an entirely different ballgame, posing new technological and social media challenges to political parties and their candidates.
The business of political consulting has been growing rapidly in the country where it is still dominated by I-PAC.
According to an estimate by the industry body Assocham, India had nearly 150 political consultants, big and small, in 2014. Today, their number is estimated to have more than doubled. They include organizations and individuals described as political consultants, campaign managers, political analysts or strategists.
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Typically, an electoral campaign starts months ahead of polling and every strategist has a different approach towards political parties and candidates. In most cases, the consultant offers data services, including booth data at the constituency level, historical data on how voting patterns have shifted in a particular seat and ground surveys to understand the voters’ concerns. After this, a campaign is created and the politician is asked to implement it.
I-PAC does all this, but what sets it apart is its vast network of foot soldiers, or field workers, and the ability to glean a thorough understanding of issues on the ground. With targets for each constituency in a state, volunteers go straight to the village and booth level to enrich I-PAC’s insights into the social and political ecosystem.
“The outcome is not determined by any one tool or one method but through a thorough eye for detail and robustness in everything that I-PAC does,” said the spokesperson.
What sets it apart
To begin with, I-PAC enters a project-based service contract with a political party for the work it does. After the two sides mutually discuss and decide on future partnerships, the political party that hires I-PAC reimburses the salaries of its members and pays for campaign activities.
The consulting firm charges up to Rs 30 lakh for a minimum six-month duration, according to a 2019 article in the Wire. Moneycontrol couldn’t independently verify the amount.
"The revenue depends on the projects it takes up in a particular year," the spokesperson said.
Based in Hyderabad, the firm’s total strength varies from time to time, depending on its ongoing projects. At the moment, I-PAC has about 900 employees spread across offices in Hyderabad, Patna and Kolkata.
Every election season, the firm hires personnel for electoral campaign and field operations, research and insights, data analytics and technology, digital communication and media and to staff other departments.
“Other consultants normally focus on social media and media management. But, in I-PAC, the field team is the bigger functional team. I-PAC gets involved with the party at every level and has a member in every seat and with every candidate and MLA. Kishor succeeds because he works holistically and takes over everything,” said a former employee who did not want to be named.
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Kishor has been away from political consultancy since last year, yet he remains “a guiding force and mentor” for I-PAC, the spokesperson said.
In one of its strategies for YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh in 2019, I-PAC designed what it called Samara Shankaravnam, a network of 50,520 booth level workers with one convener and ten workers at each booth in the state.
Through this initiative, party chief Jagan Mohan Reddy met booth-level workers in each of the 13 districts of the state. Similarly, I-PAC’s 2021 team in Tamil Nadu for Stalin comprised 700-800 core members spread across districts. Additionally, it had 2,500-3,000 volunteers working on the ground.
The average age of an I-PAC member is 25-26, with people coming from different backgrounds and professional skill sets, according to a report in The Newsminute.
For decades, caste, region and religion have remained the decisive factors in India’s elections, with issues like performance of the government, development and unemployment taking the back seat.
Yet, the proportion of the floating vote is key to determining election results. It is this 3-7 percent swing in each constituency that consultants like I-PAC focus on, political analysts said.