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Home > News > Opinion News > Article > Gently unpacking BTS of the polls

Gently unpacking BTS of the polls

Updated on: 22 May,2024 06:52 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Mayank Shekhar |

Walked around the political consultancy I-PAC’s office in Kolkata—rightly left stunned by the machinery behind polls

Gently unpacking BTS of the polls

The SC/ST campaign team at the I-PAC headquarters in Salt Lake, West Bengal

Mayank ShekharPerhaps there could be an SC & ST (Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe) desk, headed by a section officer for a dull babu, in India’s ministry of minority affairs, for all we know.

Only, the “SC & ST team”, huddled into a common cubicle I pass by, comprises fresh graduates on their laptops, brimming with enthusiasm, at a huge, swanky election war-room of the political consultancy firm, I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee), in Kolkata. 

These younglings, I’m told, focus on issues of SC/STs across 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in Bengal—from helping them access caste certificates, to surveying other needs/demands. 

“There are 3,000 such volunteers, who’ve joined in as young fellows or junior researchers, for three months, running up to the national elections,” says Kainat Sarfaraz, media-lead for I-PAC. 

Former journalist, Kainat, who’s too shy to be photographed, is a full-time employee of I-PAC. As are similar leads of multiple departments. They don’t enter the political scene, only during elections. Which is what I had assumed. This is more like a parallel set-up to the party system. 

I-PAC has been working round-the-clock with their client, Mamata Bannerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), ever since they helped the party retain power in 2021 Assembly elections. 

One of their big jobs, for instance, was to hold pretty much a referendum across villages of Bengal—on who the people would like fielded as candidate for the local chief, during panchayat elections of July, 2023.

Much like Indian government’s catchily branded schemes, I-PAC campaigns, aka modules, come with attractive slogans. 

Kainat tells me, “In October, 2023, Trinamool Congress had gone to Delhi to protest against Central government’s decision to stop Bengal’s funds. 

“It became national news, as Trinamool leaders were assaulted inside Krishi Bhavan; later detained at Mandir Marg police station. That campaign [titled] ‘Dilli Chalo’ was designed by us.” 

There are several such, with branded vehicles, roaming across the state, including Tapashir Sanglap, a mass-connect programme for SC/STs, that those younglings I met from the SC/ST team must be number-crunching over. 

The most famous one, I guess, was Dooare Sarkar, from December, 2020, where citizens were directly approached for timely delivery of welfare schemes, before the Assembly elections—the tag-line of which, famously, was Khela Hobe! 

TMC trounced BJP in that state election. BJP, under Modi, in turn, was I-PAC’s first major client, during 2014 general elections. 

Which is why, along with wide hoardings of Mamata at the I-PAC office, you also observe a large picture of PM Narendra Modi, along with past and present clients (Andhra’s Jagan Reddy, Punjab’s Captain Amarinder Singh, etc). 

Last checked, Kainat tells me, “There are about 150 political consultancy firms—ShowTime, Inclusive Minds, Nation with NaMo… None match the scale of I-PAC, which was the pioneer in the field.” 

Its genesis, or its “Jan Sangh”, as Kainat puts it, was CAG (Citizens for Accountable Governance), founded in 2013, by Modi’s political aide, Prashant Kishor, and others, including ex-IITian, Pratik Jain, who still runs I-PAC. 

As we speak, Pratik is out touring with Abhishek Bannerjee (Mamata’s nephew; TMC’s campaign boss). I’m glad Kainat’s found the time. 

I also wished to meet with Indrani Dutta, who leads I-PAC’s social-media unit for Bengal. She’s hurtling between cubicles, doing “QC”, as in approving a video, they’re about to drop online. This feels like a newsroom. 

“Think of us as lawyers defending a case—blind to the client’s crime; that’s for the judge to decide,” Kainat reasons.

While I-PAC evidently runs outreach programmes all through, the general elections itself—that stretches over three months—is, of course, the last mile. 

Except, this actual campaign, as you can tell, mostly devolves into a ‘he-said, she-said’, claims and counter-claims kinda lowbrow propaganda, delivered from stage, or social media, with crazy commentary, every second. 

Wholly boggling citizens, who must inevitably pick between the lesser evils. “Well, if the elections are gonna be about hawa (wave), then so be it,” Kainat says. When hiring younglings for I-PAC, what she looks for is “intelligence and intellect, to spot swings, and spins!” 

Beyond the massive apparatus of the party, and the political consultancies, servicing candidates across constituencies—often the better-off contenders run their own self-sponsored campaign, with a separate team. 

Which is what I’d noticed, a few days ago, with BJP’s Locket Chatterjee, who had 250 workers, manning her Facebook account, minute by minute, for Hooghly seat alone.  

Contrast this with my visit to the party office of CPM in Basirhat constituency—about three hours away from the I-PAC war-room, that’s on the top floor of glass-and-steel Godrej skyscraper, in Kolkata’s tony Salt Lake. 

CPM had been in power in Bengal for 34 years, until 2011. This quaint office, its fan whirring in pain, has a wooden desk, two chairs; one of them dangling for life. 

A quiet gentleman, with his shirt nearly off, for the heat, seats me, offers tea, rambles on about life. I pick up a foldable postcard with the CPM election symbol and messages, from the desk. There are few left.

Tired, I ask the equally harried gentleman, if I can meet the Basirhat candidate, that I’d come over for. “I am the candidate,” Nirapada Sardar tells me. Nirapada is also fighting this election. Unsure, if it’s the same democracy, though.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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