Lok Sabha 2019: Meet the movers and shapers of Indian politics

On a December morning in 2016, Dimple Yadav, Lok Sabha MP from the Samajwadi Party (SP) and wife of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, received a call from Aditi Singh, the Congress MLA from Rae Bareli. Singh had a special request for her friend Dimple, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra wanted to meet her. Dimple happily agreed and later introduced Priyanka to not only Akhilesh but SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav. A month later, the SP and the Congress announced their alliance for the 2017 assembly election, a deal that fructified primarily through the efforts of Priyanka and Dimple.

Cut to the 2019 Lok Sabha election. While the SP has tied up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), officially discarding the Congress, Dimple and Priyanka, now the Congress general secretary in charge of eastern UP, met again in Lucknow earlier this month. The two are working to strategically position their contests to minimise electoral damage to their respective parties.

With the Lok Sabha election just a couple of months away, there’s not a dull day for the movers and shapers of Indian politics, as they work overtime to formulate strategies, gauge the public mood, fill in their central leadership with critical data and information and fine-tune the battle plan for the do-or-die seats. They could be the most visible faces of their parties or staunch loyalists or reclusive backroom operators. But what all of them have in common is the ability to break logjams and reach out to leaders across parties, walk the extra mile to strike a hard bargain. They have the courage to take unconventional paths and have proven track records of delivering.

In the BJP, Union HRD minister Prakash Javadekar is one such workhorse. While party president Amit Shah, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray have been the faces of the renewed alliance between the two parties, it was Javadekar who worked behind the scenes to sweeten the deal for the estranged allies. He was appointed the BJP’s negotiator with the Shiv Sena because he had experience of dealing with Sena leaders, from his days as late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan’s right-hand man.

In the course of two months, Javadekar held five meetings with Thackeray and Subhash Desai, a senior Sena minister in Maharashtra, before Fadnavis joined the negotiations. To avoid media attention, Javadekar travelled to Thackeray’s Mumbai home, Matoshree, in a private vehicle. One of Thackeray’s main grudges had been that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah were out of bounds. With the Sena brass reluctant to deal with the BJP at the state leadership level alone, Fadnavis had convinced Shah to pay Thackeray a personal visit at his Mumbai home in June last year. Shah got a sense that Thackeray preferred a dialogue with a senior BJP leader and not the 48-year-old Fadnavis and put Javadekar on the job. Javadekar keeps a low profile. His easygoing approach and past equation helped nurse bruised egos, says a BJP leader.

Javadekar’s bigger challenge, though, is to maximise the BJP’s gains in Karnataka, where it failed to form the government last year despite emerging as the single largest party. The BJP would like to see the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) pre-poll alliance falter as it threatens to reduce the BJP’s 2014 Lok Sabha tally of 17. As the party’s poll in-charge in Karnataka, Javadekar’s challenge will be to earn the confidence of JD(S) patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda and chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy.

The BJP, though, has made some invisible breaches down south. The party’s national secretary Ram Madhav has opened channels with YSR Congress (YSRC) chief Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) chief K. Chandrashekar Rao in Telangana. The BJP is a marginal player in both states. Through Reddy and Rao have categorically said no to any pre-poll alliance, the BJP is believed to be pursuing them for assurances of support in the event it falls short of a majority after the Lok Sabha election.

A couple of circumstantial developments helped the BJP. Election strategist Prashant Kishor, who played a key role in Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha election strategy in 2014 and later parted ways, has joined the party’s ally Janata Dal (United) as the de facto no. 2. Kishor’s organisation I-PAC, or the Indian Political Action Committee, has been preparing the YSRC’s election strategy for the past three years and he was recently roped in by the Shiv Sena too. It is believed Kishor’s meeting with Thackeray on February 5 provided a much-needed boost to the BJP-Sena alliance. Thackeray’s son Aditya arranged the meeting and Kishor explained to the father-son duo how the arithmetic worked in favour of the alliance.

The shaper of the BJP’s pre-poll alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu is Union minister for railways Piyush Goyal. As the party’s poll in-charge in the state, Goyal started out with a few handicaps. He did not have any past equation with the AIADMK leaders. Language was another barrier, but the Tamil-speaking Union minister of state for finance Pon Radhakrishnan helped Goyal out. Together, they impressed upon Tamil Nadu chief minister E.K. Palaniswami and his deputy O. Panneerselvam that to return to power in Tamil Nadu in 2021, the AIADMK would do well to have the backing of the central government in terms of budgetary support for sops. Moreover, with the Congress-DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) alliance going strong, there would be no place for the AIADMK in a Congress-led government at the Centre. What adds more value to the deal brokered by Goyal is the addition of the Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) in the mega alliance. It is expected to boost the alliance’s prospects in northern Tamil Nadu as well as the western and southern districts.

The PMK was earlier toying with the idea of joining the Congress-DMK coalition.

However, the BJP has multiple worries in the crucial state of UP (80 Lok Sabha seats) and in West Bengal (42 seats). In UP, the SP-BSP alliance threatens to significantly reduce the BJP’s 2014 Lok Sabha tally of 71 seats. The BJP’s key man here is organisation secretary Sunil Bansal, who is busy mapping each constituency to pick winnable candidates against the emerging Opposition forcesthe SP-BSP alliance, which will target backward and Dalit votes and the Congress, which may dent the BJP’s upper caste vote share. Back channel negotiations are also onUnion finance minister Arun Jaitley has been working his phone with BSP second-in-command Satish Mishra to persuade Mayawati to walk out of the alliance with the SP. Congress insiders claim Mayawati’s opposition to the inclusion of their party in the SP-BSP alliance was instigated by the veiled threat of CBI investigations’ against the BSP supremo.

In West Bengal, the BJP faces challenges from two frontsthe Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Congress-CPI(M) alliance. Contrary to Shah’s target of 23 Lok Sabha seats, internal surveys indicate 8-15 seats, at best, for the BJP. Apart from running a high-decibel campaign led by Modi and Shah, the BJP has been trying to poach strong candidates from rival parties. While Mukul Roy, once a trusted lieutenant of Mamata Banerjee, has emerged as a key player in the BJP’s game plan for West Bengal, Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan engineered TMC MP Saumitra Khan’s switchover to the BJP in January.

If the BJP’s movers and shapers are working the electoral chessboard, the Congress and other parties are also trying to get their permutations and combinations right. In Congress, Ahmed Patel is burning the midnight oil. Late into the night, the Congress treasurer either works his phone or holds meetings with party leaders at his 23, Willingdon Crescent Road residence in New Delhi. For many opposition leaders, Patel is the preferred point of contact in Congress. Mamata Banerjee regularly keeps in touch with Patel even though she has direct access to Sonia Gandhi. Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu is more comfortable dealing with Patel, despite his equation with Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

However, of late, Patel, a veteran Gandhi family loyalist, has faced disappointment from two prospective allies. Despite maintaining an excellent rapport with Mayawati, he has failed to convince her to team up with the Congress in recent elections. In the December assembly election, Maya-wati declined to join hands with the party in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Her Lok Sabha alliance with the SP in UP, too, has shut out the Congress. Mayawati believes Congress votes will not transfer to the BSP.

Patel’s other failure was in Meghalaya where he could not win over the National People’s Party (NPP), a BJP ally. When Meghalaya chief minister and NPP chief Conrad Sangma protested against the Centre’s attempt to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslim illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, Patel reached out to him. Conrad’s father P.A. Sangma, a former Congress leader, was close to Patel and his sister Agatha was part of the UPA government. However, Conrad refused a pre-Lok Sabha poll alliance with the Congress.

CONRAD’S REFUSAL IS understandable given the firm grip of Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma on almost all non-Congress parties in the Northeast. Sarma, a former protégé of Patel, has continued to haunt the Congress since 2015 when he switched over to the BJP. He has been the prime force behind the BJP’s success in wresting six of the eight northeastern states. For Sarma, almost all leaders across parties in the region are a phone call away. If the Congress’s Takam Sanjoy in Arunachal Pradesh is a close friend, Sarma is on equally good terms with Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio and Rio’s predecessor and rival T.R. Zeliang. The BJP has given Sarma the task of winning at least 15 of the 25 seats in the Northeast.

These 25 seats are the reason why Patel, on Mamata’s advice, has been planning a rally of opposition parties in Guwahati in March to attract prospective allies in the region. Mamata Banerjee believes opposition parties should hold such rallies in different parts of the country to not only create a buzz but also inspire confidence among the fence-sitting parties, says a senior Congress leader. Apart from Patel, the other Congress brainstormers are K. Raju, Ashok Gehlot, Randeep Singh Surjewala and K.C. Venugopal. Raju, a former bureaucrat from Andhra Pradesh and now in-charge of Rahul Gandhi’s office, keeps a low profile even as he provides vital inputs to Rahul on several issues. His role is often likened to Patel’s when he was Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary. But Raju functions in a more formal and transparent way and in sync with Patel. The Raju-Patel equation almost nullified the old versus new debate in the Congress, says a Congress general secretary. It brought in much-needed coordination within the party.

Patel’s close confidant Ashok Gehlot has emerged as the chief political advisor to Rahul. Gehlot’s equity increased when, as general secretary in-charge of Gujarat, he helped the Congress give a tough fight to the BJP on Modi and Shah’s home turf. In Karnataka, where the BJP emerged as the single largest party, Gehlot played a key role in convincing outgoing chief minister Siddaramaiah to agree to the Congress proposal of giving the chief ministerial position to junior partner JD(S). At the same time, Patel’s protégé in Karnataka, D.K. Shivakumar, has ensured that the BJP is unable to poach Congress MLAs. Shivakumar has been tasked with keeping an eye on disgruntled legislators being wooed by the BJP. In February, when the BJP launched Operation Lotus’, he was quick to ensure that all the Congress legislators, barring four rebels, were present in the same resort. Later, he convinced even the rebels to return to the party fold. He played a crucial role in the parliamentary bypolls in Karnataka last year, wresting Ballari from the BJP after 14 years. He also ensured that Congress votes transferred to the JD(S) candidate in the Ramanagara assembly bypoll, for which the two parties had a pre-poll alliance. Shivakumar is now confident of shaping a Congress-JD(S) alliance for the Lok Sabha contest. This alliance will work and we will win at least 20-22 seats, he told INDIA TODAY.

Congress communication in-charge Surjewala’s influence in the party can be assessed from the fact that he has often convinced the party to change tack on important issues. Within hours of the suicide bomb attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama on February 14, Surjewala had questioned the Modi government’s security set-up in Kashmir. The next day, prodded by senior leaders, Rahul changed the party’s position and declared that it would stand by the government on whatever action it takes against the attack. But, in less than a week, Surjewala convinced Rahul to corner the Modi government on security lapses in Kashmir. When the government announced the air strike on terror camps in Pakistan in the pre-dawn hours of February 26, both Rahul and Surjewala sent out tweets saluting the pilots.

One leader whose influence in Congress has grown dramatically of late is K.C. Venugopal, a Lok Sabha MP from Kerala. Venugopal has not only been inducted into the party’s highest body, the Congress Working Committee but also been made general secretary in-charge of the organisation, a post till recently held by Gehlot. Many leaders attribute this sudden rise to his strategic location’in the Lok Sabha, his seat is next to Rahul’s and in Delhi, his official home is next to Priyanka’s. Such aspersions apart, he played a major role in the Congress-JD(S) government formation in Karnataka, thanks to his personal chemistry with Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy. This is considered to have helped keep the alliance intact despite Kumaraswamy’s periodic outbursts and the BJP’s alleged attempts to engineer defections among Congress MLAs.

Interestingly, Venugopal, who replaced Digvijaya Singh as Congress general secretary in-charge of Karnataka, was the AICC observer for Goa in 2017. Digvijaya was general secretary in-charge of Goa at that time and the two leaders had failed to instal a Congress government in the state despite the party winning the largest number of seats. Now, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, Venugopal is coordinating between Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar and the Congress’s Maharashtra chief Ashok Chavan. Though the Congress-NCP pre-poll tie-up in Maharashtra has been finalised, differences have been emerging over seat-sharing and selection of candidates. What has made Venugopal’s task easy is that Pawar shares a warm relationship with Rahul? The ice-breaker, though, was Chavan’s initiative to shed past hostilities and wish Pawar on his 77th birthday on December 12 last year.

Given full freedom to operate, Somen Mitra, chief of the Congress unit in West Bengal, has worked hard towards the party’s proposed alliance with the Left Front, headed by the CPI(M). Aiding Mitra’s efforts was the fact that Rahul values the political counsel of CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury, even addressing him as boss’. Mitra and Congress veteran Abdul Mannan are in constant touch with Left leaders, such as Surjya Mishra and Rabin Deb, to take the alliance forward. Deb has been trying to get other members of the Left Frontthe CPI, Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP)into the alliance. The Congress has asked for 20 seats whereas the Left sees anything less than 26 for the Front partners as unacceptable. The friction over seat-sharing has posed the biggest challenge to the joint efforts of Mitra and Deb. The CPI(M) has managed to bring the RSP and the CPI on board for seat-sharing with the Congress. However, the Forward Bloc is still not ready to toe the line as the party is keen on contesting the Purulia, Coochbehar and Barasat Lok Sabha seats, where the Congress too wants to field candidates. Unless either of the two parties blinks, the proposed alliance is likely to collapse. Some Congress leaders have already raised a clamour to go it alone in West Bengal.

Unlike the BJP and Congress, the networkers in the regional parties are often constrained by bosses accustomed to exercising absolute control and micro-managing all electoral strategy and communication with other parties. While Derek O’Brien of the TMC and Manoj Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) have emerged as their respective parties’ faces in traditional and social media, they mostly execute the commands of their leadership. They do not have direct access to the top brass of other parties either.

For instance, if O’Brien has to communicate with Pawar, he must go through Praful Patel. If it is with the DMK’s M.K. Stalin, he needs to get in touch with Kanimozhi. However, one exception is Sanjay Yadav of the RJD. The 35-year-old MBA from Haryana has been a close friend of Tejashwi Yadav from his cricketing days in Delhi. He has now emerged as the equivalent of Prashant Kishor in the RJD. From mapping constituencies to giving communication tips to Tejashwi to handling Lalu Prasad’s Twitter account, Sanjay plays a key role in formulating the electoral strategy of the RJD. Significantly, it was he who brought Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s anti-reservation quote in 2015 to Lalu’s notice and advised the RJD boss to attack the BJP aggressively.

As parties gear up for the mother of all battles this summer, their commanders are sweating it out to get the arithmetic right. Eventually, it will be up to the electorate to judge if the math adds up.


Union Minister for Railways


Current assignment: Poll in-charge of Tamil Nadu

Core strength: The unofficial BJP treasurer, he is the party’s bridge between industrialists and traders and, as Arun Jaitley’s protégé, has a hotline to Shah and Modi

Deal delivered: Convinced the AIADMK to contest only in 22 of the 39 LS seats in the state, leaving five to BJP and rest to other NDA allies

Social media quotient: Five million followers on Twitter


Chief Minister, Maharashtra Maratha Manager

His master’s man: The blue-eyed boy of Narendra Modi, he has convinced the prime minister to make several political amends, including the decision to renew ties with the Shiv Sena

Deal delivered: Worked out the nuts and bolts of the seat-sharing agreement with the Shiv Sena; persuaded BJP president Amit Shah to pay a courtesy visit to Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray at his residence in Mumbai last year; as CM of Maharashtra took several administrative decisions fulfilling the wishes of Sena leadership

Social media quotient: Has three million Twitter followers; personally writes and posts the tweets

Communication quotient: Responds to all text messages he considers important


Union Minister for Human Resource Development


Current assignment: Poll in-charge of Rajasthan and Karnataka

Deal delivered: He was the key negotiator in the renewed alliance between the BJP and Shiv Sena; held multiple rounds of talks with Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray

Social media quotient: Has 1.5 million followers on Twitter; often responds to public grievances

The survivor: In Rajasthan, the BJP was thrown out of power. In Karnataka, despite emerging as the single-largest party, it failed to form the government. Yet Javadekar escaped blame

Who knew? When Modi first picked him as minister and later gave him a Cabinet rank, many were surprised: he was a protégé of the late Pramod Mahajan who wanted Modi ousted as Gujarat chief minister following the 2002 riots in the state.


BJP General Secretary

(Organisation), Uttar Pradesh

Chanakya of Lucknow

Current assignment: To prepare a list of winning candidates in Uttar Pradesh; also work with contacts in SP and BSP to break the SP and BSP alliance

Core strength: Absolute control over the organisation; executes plans fast

Sore point: Does not share a good rapport with UP CM Yogi Adityanath

Social media quotient: Has 600,000 followers on Twitter; has built up a strong social media team in Uttar Pradesh in the past two years


National General Secretary, BJP


Cabinet Minister, Assam; Convenor, Northeast

Democratic Alliance


Current assignment: While Ram Madhav is the party in-charge of the Northeast, Sarma is the man on ground, who stitches alliances and chalks out local strategy. As NEDA convenor, Sarma has kept all non-Congress political parties in the region united under the NDA fold despite the protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Madhav is working to bring estranged ally AGP back to the NDA with the help of NPP head and Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma; the duo hopes to win 20 out of 25 seats in the Northeast for the NDA

Cross-party friends: Sarma’s speed dial list includes all heads of political parties active in the Northeast; also some members of the CWC of the Congress

Communication quotient: Madhav is accessible over phone to a select few; Sarma gets calls from top leaders to grassroots workers and holds political rendezvous even at dhabas, or wherever necessary


Congress General Secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh East


Current assignment: To maximise Congress seats in UP; has already met Dimple Yadav, wife of SP chief Akhilesh Yadav

Advisor-in-chief: Is the ultimate sounding board for Congress president Rahul Gandhi; helped him finalise the CM names for the three states won by the Congress in December 2018; convinced him to attack the Modi government over Pulwama attack

Hands-on: In terms of working style, she is the exact opposite of Rahul; is spontaneous, takes instant decisions, doesn’t believe in processes but ensures she is not seen as a counterforce to Rahul

Social media quotient: Has 200,000 followers on Twitter; has not tweeted yet


Treasurer, Congress The Troubleshooter

Current assignment: To generate resources for the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, keep line of communication open with probable allies; working along with West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee on several proposed rallies of all opposition parties at different locations in the country

Man for all seasons: He has the ear of the old as well as the new guard in the party. He’s the preferred Congress contact of several party leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, N. Chandrababu Naidu, M.K. Stalin and Farooq Abdullah

Man in command: He has loyal colleagues and protégés in almost every stateKamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Ashok Chavan in Maharashtra, D.K. Shivakumar in Karnataka

Social media quotient: A reluctant beginner; he is now active on Twitter; has 600,000 followers.



Congress Communication In-charge


Congress General Secretary (Organisation)

He decides on the party’s public stand on key issues. On Pulwama, he opted to go after the Modi government from the very first day even though Rahul Gandhi did not want to and later got Priyanka Gandhi on board to make Rahul change his mind

Rahul’s new favourite; shares a great equation with H.D. Deve Gowda and his son and Karnataka CM H.D. Kumaraswamy; keeps the Congress-JD (S) alliance working; finalised seat-sharing deal in Maharashtra with NCP; one of the key negotiators with DMK



Head of Rahul Gandhi’s office

Rahul Gandhi’s gatekeeper-in-chief advises him on almost everything under the sun; his word is final on Dalit issues; works in close coordination with Ahmed Patel


Chief Minister, Rajasthan

Rahul values his political advice. For instance, though K.C. Venugopal is Karnataka general secretary in-charge, Gehlot’s words matter a lot in the state, considering his equation with former Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah


Vice-president, Janata Dal (United) The Service Provider

Current assignment: Though a JD(U) leader, his organisation IPAC has been looking after the election strategy of Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSRC. The Shiv Sena has also sought his help. Had several rounds of discussion with Modi and Amit Shah on election strategy; Kishor was one of Modi’s key strategists in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll

Cross-party friends: Has friends in many parties, from Priyanka Gandhi and Amarinder Singh in the Congress and Modi and Amit Shah in the BJP to Aditya Thackeray in the Shiv Sena and Lalu Yadav in the RJD

Communication quotient: Accessible on WhatsApp, prefers WhatsApp calls over regular ones

Who knew? Kishor advised Nitish Kumar to take back his chair from Jitan Ram Manjhi


Current assignment: Has been travelling around Bihar to understand the region-wise, micro-level dynamics of state politics and prepare the RJD for the 2019 Lok Sabha election; also evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the alliance candidates

Past performance: In the run-up to the Bihar assembly poll in 2015, he dug out Mohan Bhagwat’s statement seeking a review of reservations and helped the RJD leadership make it a big electoral issue; this particular Bhagwat interview had almost gone unnoticed

Data defence: When the BJP attacked the RJD’s past regime as jungle raj’, which always put the RJD men on the defensive, Sanjay dug out the GDP and crime data from 1961 to prove that Lalu Prasad Yadav’s tenure was not so bad


Political advisor to RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav; social and

political scientist The Dutiful Wife


Samajwadi Party MP and wife of party chief Akhilesh Yadav

Current assignment: Coordinating with Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi on the informal tactical understanding between Congress and SP for the 2019 Lok Sabha poll

Deal delivered: In the 2017 assembly poll, she convinced Akhilesh to tie up with the Congress after Priyanka had met with her

Communication quotient: A commerce graduate, Dimple is fluent in both English and Hindi, unlike

most SP leaders; she is one of the star campaigners for the party

Cross-party friends: Has good rapport with Congress women leaders from UP, such as Aradhana Misra, MLA from Rampur Khas, and Aditi Singh, MLA from Rae Bareli

Social media quotient: Has more that 200,000 followers on Twitter; tweets herself


BSP Rajya Sabha MP

The Silent Social


Deal delivered: He was the BSP’s chief negotiator in the SP-BSP alliance for the Lok Sabha poll

The event manager: Before every public appearance of Mayawati, Mishra prepares the speech, looks after the security and finalises the leaders to be seated on the dais

Cross-party friends: Has a good rapport with Arun Jaitley The Common Friend


Central Committee Member, CPI(M)

Current assignment: Coordinating with Congress leaders on seat-sharing between the two parties in West Bengal

Mr Wikipedia: Always ready with dates and event details

Cross-party friends: Has many friends in the Congress, TMC and BJP

Who knew? Deb is very fond of pocket transistor radios.

With Jeemon Jacob, Aravind Gowda Kiran D. Tare, Rahul Noronha, Romita Datta Ashish Misra and Amarnath K. Menon


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