Interview: Political strategists are overhyped, says STC Director Shantanu Singh, who scripted TDP win in Andhra

After their defeat in the 2019 election, Chandrababu Naidu and TDP were almost written off. He made a significant comeback aided by STC.

BySumit Jha

Published Jun 11, 2024 | 6:38 PMUpdatedJun 11, 2024 | 6:38 PM

STC Shantanu Singh interview

Following its debacle in the 2019 elections in Andhra Pradesh — securing only 23 Assembly and three Parliament seats — the TDP led by N Chandrababu Naidu was almost written off, with many claiming that the party was finished.

Cut back to 2024, the TDP now has 135 Assembly and 16 Parliament constituencies in its kitty, thanks to Showtime Consulting (commonly known as STC) which played a crucial role in the party’s comeback.

South First spoke to STC’s Director-Head of Operations (Andhra Pradesh) Shantanu Singh, who delved into how the organisation helped TDP gain back power, the realm of political consultancy, and much more.

Also Read: Nominal representation or outside support to Modi: The choices before Naidu

Edited excerpts

Q: Can you tell me about your professional experience before the career in political consulting?

A: I hail from Ayodhya. My background and career were unrelated to politics. Before entering the political space in 2015 with the Bihar project of the I-PAC (Indian Political Action Committee) as one of the founding members, I worked as a product development manager at ITC.

I was involved in developing cigarette packs and worked there for about two years. My transition as a political consultant wasn’t driven by any grand vision. I just wanted to experiment with something new.

I graduated as an electrical engineer from IIT Kanpur, but I haven’t used that education extensively beyond its problem-solving aspects in my professional life.

In 2015, I started with the Bihar project and then moved on to the UP project. Unfortunately, we lost UP while I was with IPAC.

From 2017 to 2019, I led the campaign with IPAC for Jagan Mohan Reddy and the YSRCP.

Later, I spent a year in the US attending policy school, and after that, I worked on campaigns in West Bengal. After taking a short break to focus on myself, when the opportunity with STC came up, I started working here.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about STC? When did STC start, and who are the people leading the team?

A: STC was founded in November 2019 by Robbinn (Sharma), with TDP being its first project.

Initially, STC focused on rebuilding the cadre base of TDP, as the last election had been disastrous for them, marked by mass defections to YSRCP. I mean, I was involved in a lot of them (laugh). Our first task was to keep the flock intact and get things back on track.

Since then, we have taken on two more projects. One was with Conrad Sangma in Meghalaya, which we won, also against our old friends (I-PAC which is working for TMC) (laugh), and the other was with (Eknath) Shinde of Shiv Sena.

Q: How do you see the future of political consultancies?

A: I need to break this down into two parts because there is a lot of fluff around political consulting, and some of my friends like to speak very highly of their work. First, I want to clarify (what it is), and then I’ll discuss the future.

The contribution of a political consulting firm or a political strategist is somewhat overhyped. If I were to use a metaphor, we are like the spice in food: We can make it more palatable, tastier, and smell better, but the nutrition comes from your party, leader, ideology, or messaging.

Please don’t link the future of political consulting directly with political dynamics because, in an election, your party, leader, ideology, and track record matter a lot. Our work is to project these elements in a better way to the people; there’s no magic trick.

Regarding the future of political consulting firms, the political space is becoming more competitive. The BJP’s spread has shrunk a bit, so other parties will try to gain a better share or ride on the momentum that suggests the BJP is not the same as in 2014. This shift will likely lead to the emergence of new ventures.

One significant development could be the resurgence of regional parties outside of BJP and Congress, and their attempts to regain the power they had in the 1990s and early 2010s. In this ecosystem, political consultants will play a significant role.

Also Read: Amid TDP’s crucial support, demand for ‘Special category Status’ comes to fore

Q: Who are the emerging political consultants right now?

A:  When STC started gaining traction, no one expected a new player to emerge because everyone assumed I-PAC was the dominant force. However, new organisations can definitely come up.

There are a few individuals working with the BJP who prefer to stay out of the media spotlight, and they are doing quite good work.

I won’t mention their names out of respect for their privacy. Additionally, there are people who do individual assignments for one MP or a few MLAs.

These individuals are using technology in innovative ways for the electioneering process, and they have the potential to disrupt the space significantly. This keeps me on edge as I have to keep innovating to avoid becoming obsolete.

Q: Prashant Kishor was seen with Nara Lokesh at Vijayawada airport in December 2023. Can you tell me what role Prashant Kishor played in this election? What is his advisory role in STC?

A: Well, I was also on that flight (laugh).

Prashant’s involvement in the Andhra Pradesh campaign is best described by him, as he is focused on building a political movement in Bihar.

Regarding his role in our lives, both Robin and I owe a lot to him. Neither of us comes from any political family or has any formal political education from universities known for political activism like ABVP or NSUI.

Our knowledge of real-world politics was limited before meeting Prashant.

He has been our first teacher in this field, and he has always been available for advice and help, even though he is very busy. If we reach out to him, he may take a couple of days to respond, but he always does.

He has been exceptionally kind and supportive, even when I left I-PAC. I expected him to scold me, but instead, he treated me like a younger brother and assured me that I could always reach out to him.

Q: What role did STC play in Andhra Pradesh for TDP?

A: STC’s role was comprehensive and end-to-end. Let me give you an idea of a typical workday over the last two years. It started with a 9 am check-in call with CBN (Chandrababu Naidu) and other senior leaders.

CBN is a very professional person and these calls included senior leaders, Robbinn, and a few other stakeholders. We would present detailed updates on everything, receive inputs from senior leaders, and then divide the work for the day.

There would typically be a catch-up call in the evening with Nara Lokesh or the state party president, and sometimes a late-night call with CBN to review the day’s progress.

Our involvement spanned various aspects such as communication, organisation building, candidate selection, political liaison (especially getting people from YSRCP and retaining our members), and overall strategic planning.

CBN trusted us with significant responsibilities, and we made sure to keep an eye on every detail. We had a lot at stake in this election and were determined to monitor every factor that could influence the outcome.

Q: How do you see Chandrababu Naidu as a leader?

A: Working with CBN reminded me a lot of my research projects. For instance, I did a research project with Professor Badri Raghavan at the University of Houston, and both Professor Raghavan and Naidu have a similar approach.

Naidu is very professional and has a thorough understanding of what’s happening in various fields, including AI and VR. Despite being an economics graduate, he was often more aware of the latest developments in these areas than I was, even though I’m an engineer.

He has an incredible work ethic and is a hard taskmaster. He ensures that if we are working 15-16 hours a day, he works at least 15 minutes more. Over the last two years, I have always received messages from him late at night or early in the morning, providing precise inputs on our reports.

Even when he was in jail, Lokesh Nara (LN) coordinated everything meticulously. LN is very hands-on and ensures that every detail is covered.

Naidu’s dedication and professionalism made it feel like working in a highly professional environment. Growing up in the 90s, we heard stories about how he revolutionised the IT space in India, and working closely with him was a privilege.

Also Read: As Naidu endorses him, Modi calls NDA an ‘organic alliance’

Q: What strategy did your team use to leverage his leadership and turn voter attention into votes?

A:  Almost everywhere, we capitalised on his leadership. Before starting the project, I toured Andhra Pradesh to understand the political landscape.

I found that people were frustrated with the lack of development and jobs, but they didn’t know why this was happening. There was general anger toward the government, but the problem was nuanced, and not everyone could grasp it immediately.

We realised we needed to use Naidu’s personal credibility and brand effectively. Starting in November-December 2022, we took CBN to the people.

We broke down the campaign into different themes and organised 3-4 day trips to specific areas. For example, if the focus was on the destruction of educational infrastructure, Naidu would visit struggling schools in Vijayanagaram, meet with victims of Y(SR)CP policies, and hold public meetings in the evening.

These trips were detailed but broken down into easily understandable bits that he repeated over several days. This ensured that the message was well-drilled into people’s minds.

During these trips, the entire party ecosystem, including leaders and sympathisers, focused on the same message, reinforcing it in the public’s mind.

When Naidu was arrested in September 2023, it was during one of these trips. He was on a 10-day trip talking to Rayalaseema farmers about the government’s failure to prepare for the rains, which had destroyed their crops.

This focused campaigning was effectively irking the YSRCP, and his arrest happened on the last day of this trip.

If you have a leader like Chandrababu Naidu and you don’t leverage his brand effectively, any strategy will fall short. We made sure to use his presence and credibility to the fullest extent, ensuring that every aspect of our campaign was aligned with his leadership and message.

Q: You have worked with Jagan Mohan Reddy and Chandrababu Naidu. What are the major differences between the two leaders?

A:  Can I first talk about the similarities?

Both of them are very hardworking, exceptionally so. JMR (Jagan Mohan Reddy) has an exceptional work ethic, and CBN is very hardworking.

Both leaders have a deep understanding of their support base. They know exactly what their supporters need and how to communicate with them effectively.

Even with complex issues, they can distil information into a concise, actionable summary. They can take a long presentation and extract the 3-4 key points that are actionable, specifying what needs to be done, who should do it, and the follow-up plan. This is a common trait in both leaders.

Differences, when presenting to CBN, he will comment on every slide, providing feedback and sharing his ideas. He often turns the presentation into a brainstorming session, asking questions and exploring different perspectives.

On the other hand, JMR listens to the entire presentation before giving focused feedback. He usually asks specific questions about certain points and provides clear directives.

CBN has experience working as a strategist for the late NTR, giving him a strong grasp of campaign strategies and an in-depth understanding of election dynamics.

JMR, who managed his late father YS Rajashekhara Reddy’s (YSR) office, also has a solid background in the strategic aspect of campaigns, but his approach is more directive and deadline-driven.

With JMR, deadlines are crucial. If a deadline is missed, there are serious repercussions. Though I haven’t experienced it personally, I’ve seen others getting scolded for not meeting deadlines.

Despite public perception, both leaders are open to new ideas and approaches. They are always ready to disrupt the status quo if things aren’t working.

This willingness to disrupt and innovate is a common trait among great leaders. They believe that either things work, or you disrupt them; there can’t be a status quo if things are not moving forward.

Q: Is STC going to be involved in governance with Chandrababu Naidu?

A: I can’t comment on that right now. However, CBN has kept us engaged even after the polling.

There have been a lot of discussions regarding assessments and various other things. So, probably yes, but I can’t confirm it now.

Q: As a political consultant, is it easier to work with the incumbent government or the Opposition party?

A: Nothing is particularly easy. When you are with the government, you obviously have the resources to get a lot of things done, including access to the administration and the ability to launch government initiatives. However, if anything goes wrong, you’re the one to blame.

In Opposition, you have the advantage of not being held responsible for societal issues, but you also lack the support and resources that the government has.

Media coverage tends to favour sitting ministers over Opposition leaders, making it easier to set the narrative and create noise when in power.

However, with greater visibility comes greater scrutiny and responsibility if things go wrong. So, both roles have their unique challenges and advantages.

Also Read: Chandrababu Naidu, the king maker and his tryst with BJP-led NDA

Q: What worked for you and what didn’t work for I-PAC?

A: I can’t comment on what didn’t work for I-PAC because it’s hard to say without being part of their team. However, I can share my observations.

I-PAC had almost everything in place for this repeat project. They weren’t starting from scratch; they already knew the Assembly Constituencies (ACs) and the political stakeholders.

Last time, we were in a building phase for Y(SR)CP, aligning the party and gathering detailed information down to the village level. We provided a list of around 6,000 TDP leaders at the village and panchayat levels, ensuring clean-image individuals were placed appropriately.

This granular information, including village-level inclinations, was a goldmine.

Given that I-PAC was involved for two years and the Y(SR)CP was in power, they had sufficient time and resources to make an impact.

It was challenging for us initially because the cadre was demoralised, and many were eager to write off Naidu, despite his 40 years of political experience and significant influence.

What worked for us was acknowledging the difficulty of the project from the outset. Both CBN and our team understood it was a tough task to turn things around.

He gave us the space to set the overall strategy, with major arcs and minor adjustments based on results. CBN asked many questions initially, but once he committed, he stuck to the plan, a dream scenario for any strategist.

CBN’s understanding of technology made it easier for us. He wasn’t learning from scratch; he was already knowledgeable. He would often provide valuable insights and suggest different perspectives or approaches.

His extensive experience, dating back to when political analysis was done on pen and paper, combined with his understanding of modern tech and the psyche of the Indian and Telugu communities, was invaluable.

Working with someone like CBN, who has such a comprehensive vision, particularly his “Vision 2047” and the P-model governance, was a blessing. His passion for these ideas and his ability to blend political strategy with technological understanding made a significant difference.

Q: A sarpanch has mentioned that there were offers of money but at the last moment they didn’t get it. How do you see poaching of leaders from an ethical point of view?

A: Recently, I’ve noticed a trend among newcomers, especially fresh graduates entering politics, who tend to offer money to politicians or use administrative pressure to influence decisions.

Frankly, I find this approach rather foolish. Offering money doesn’t guarantee loyalty, and resorting to administrative pressure is risky, especially considering how quickly political fortunes can change.

It’s like going to war with soldiers who are ready to defect at the first sign of weakness. Instead, I approach leaders by understanding their political ambitions and offering them a better path to achieving their goals.

Q: So what offers are made to them?

A: Different leaders have different ambitions. Some want to be prominent figures within their community or caste, others seek to become influential in regional politics, and some are driven by policy goals.

I tailor my offers based on their aspirations, proposing realistic and mutually beneficial solutions. It’s all about finding a workable middle ground through negotiation.

Q: What if they disagree?

A: It’s understood that not every negotiation will end in agreement. Mature politicians understand that personal grudges have no place in politics unless there’s a significant breach of trust. If our interests align, we work together; if not, we move on.

Successful politicians are thick-skinned and understand the importance of self-awareness and what they bring to the table.

Thick skin is essential in any field, including politics. Successful politicians understand their strengths and weaknesses and navigate the competitive landscape of Indian democracy without holding personal grudges. Our elections are highly competitive, leaving no room for long-term egos.

(Edited by Muhammed Fazil)