New Delhi: Many in the Congress are questioning the role of "political strategist" Prashant Kishor after media reports claimed he wants Rahul Gandhi projected as chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh.
Some of the reports had Kishor suggesting Priyanka Gandhi as an alternative choice. None of them quoted Kishor or any senior Congress politician.
Rahul shrugged off reporters' questions on the subject outside Parliament on Monday.
"Mujhe kya pata, aap hi log khabar chalate ho, aap hi log jano (What do I know, you people run the story so you should know)," he said.
Kishor didn't respond to either of two texts this newspaper sent him.
At the Congress's official news conference, the party neither denied nor confirmed that Kishor had made such a suggestion. It, however, asserted that Rahul was a national leader and couldn't be chief minister of a state.
Many in the party, though, were seething on Monday at how Kishor had "misread his role" and "overreached himself". None would come on record, though, as Kishor is seen as enjoying Rahul's confidence.
Kishor, a technocrat in his late 30s, is a former UN diplomat who made his mark in Indian politics as strategist for Narendra Modi's hugely successful 2014 election campaign.
He later fell out with the BJP and worked for Nitish Kumar in the last Bihar elections, the stunning victory adding a further feather to his cap. Apart from strategising for the Congress now, he works for the Nitish government in an advisory role with a cabinet minister's status.
The importance he has been receiving since being engaged to manage the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh elections, due early next year, has caused heartburn in the Congress. The pent-up feelings erupted on Monday, with many questioning the idea of hiring professional strategists.
"Has Prashant Kishor been planted by Nitish Kumar to harm Rahul's prospects? Does he want to restrict Rahul and Priyanka to Uttar Pradesh?" a Rajya Sabha member told The Telegraph, indicating the depth of the distrust many in the party harbour for Kishor.
More surprisingly, a much younger politician echoed a similar sentiment: "We know that Uttar Pradesh is difficult for the Congress at this stage. Does he want to finish off Rahul and Priyanka in this hopeless battle?"
Kishor was always going to find his latest assignment a bigger challenge than the previous one, the Congress being a much larger and more complex party than the Janata Dal United.
Some Rahul aides appeared more interested in finding out who was "planting these stories" in the media, Kishor himself or some vested interests. They insisted that Kishor had no political role and his sole job was organising campaigns.
"He has expertise of a certain kind. It's wrong to presume that he has been assigned the political role of reviving the Congress," one of them said.
"Some people in the party may be uncomfortable with the novelty of this idea but there is nothing wrong in taking professional assistance."
Informal conversations with Congress politicians from Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in the past few weeks have largely evoked disparaging remarks about Kishor's involvement.
"He tells us to remain simple, to meet poor people, not to show arrogance. Are we fools not to understand these basics after spending two-three decades in politics? Interactions with him have so far been frustrating," a leader from Punjab said.
"RG (Rahul Gandhi) has given us PK (Prashant Kishor) magic!" was the sarcastic reply from an Uttar Pradesh politician. His peers expressed similar sentiments.
Several Congress seniors, however, dismissed the dominant anti-Kishor mood among the ranks as "reactionary and exaggerated".
"He is only helping streamline the campaign. It is false to say that he controls politics. He will have no role in appointing office-bearers and selecting candidates," an All India Congress Committee general secretary said.
Another senior praised Kishor's expertise and said: "A transition is never smooth, more so in the Congress. These are teething troubles we should ignore."
But the widespread anger within the party at the role of hired professionals, some of it tied to Rahul's own "apolitical" or "managerial" style, will take a lot of persuasion to subside. And controversies like the latest one will not help.
"Even our dumbest worker knows that Rahul or Priyanka can bolster our chances, so why waste money for this advice?" a veteran from Uttar Pradesh grumbled.