In December 2022, five months before Karnataka elections 2023, a man in all white kurta-pajama walked out of a government office in Hyderabad wearing a mask. As photo journalists rapidly clicked pictures, political journalists in the city wondered whether they had indeed spotted Sunil Kanugolu, Congress’ election strategist for Karnataka, Telangana and Gujarat elections and also Lok Sabha polls 2024.
If Kanugolu was indeed in Hyderabad, leaving behind his home in Bengaluru, not many would have recognised him as the elusive strategist, who had cut his teeth with the other big name in the field – Prashant Kishor, keeps a low profile.
In the run-up to Karnataka elections, which the Congress swept winning a comfortable majority of 135 seats, Kanugolu could be seen, by the select few who can indeed recognise him, busy as a bee.
If he was not on phone communicating campaign details in English, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, and Gujarati, or the other languages that he knows, Kanugolu would be travelling from one state to the other, managing one election or the other. In the many versions about Kanugolu that one gets to hear, one trait remains constant – he is a workaholic.
Here’s what The Quint has gathered about Kanugolu, who remains tight-lipped before the media but accessible in political circles.
How Kanugolu Operated Behind the Scenes for Karnataka Polls
Kanugolu does not seem to have close confidants in the party whose senior ranks, other than the Gandhis, took in the strategist with some amount of skepticism in 2022, when he joined the Congress as the head of its campaign strategy.
But he has been working closely with AICC General Secretary (in-charge of Karnataka elections) Randeep Singh Surjewala, former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) President DK Shivakumar, apart from more than a dozen other MLAs and party workers. He is also known to be close to KC Venugopal, AICC general secretary and organisation in-charge.
Kanugolu’s touch was seen in some of the most successful campaigns the Congress came up, setting the tone for the elections 2023.
PayCM campaign and 40 Percent Sarkara campaign, which targeted the BJP for alleged corruption, were credited to him by some, even as several other party leader and workers had lent their support to these campaigns. The campaigns communicated a point – corruption and incompetence are bad.
How Sunil Kanugolu Led a Modern Day Anti-Corruption Campaign
In short, Kanugolu and his team, supported by the Congress’ rank and file, made an anti-corruption campaign successful in a country where election agenda is mostly driven by communal and caste politics. While corruption may not have drawn enthusiastic response from people, the Congress was able to expose the large scale of it. “Staying away from polarising rhetoric and focusing on development, anti-corruption, and inefficiency of the incumbent government did the trick,” a Congress source said.
Coupled with this, Kanugolu was sure that the campaign lines had to be frequent and direct. Many had seen him with social media campaign cards of the Congress even before they saw the light. In this area, he micro-managed. At the same time, the Congress came up with clear welfare measures, in keeping with the party’s stand on social justice.
Kanugolu oversaw the 'guarantee cards' which listed Congress' key election promises. The cards were distributed in hard copies to voters, making the Congress campaign accessible.
With the help of Kanugolu, the Congress also developed statewide strategies for each of its six regions where different concerns were affecting people. Effect? Even in Coastal Karnataka where the BJP swept the polls, the Congress managed to get three seats.
Karnataka campaign which reaped rich dividends is expected to give a push for Kanugolu, who believes he will continue to be an election strategist for the rest of his work-life. He will not contest elections like his counterpart Prashant Kishor, he has clearly communicated to the Congress, it is said. But who is Sunil Kanugolu?
A Backgrounder on Sunil Kanugolu
While he works from Bengaluru, his father is Kannadiga and mother, a Telugu. Kanugolu lived for long in Tamil Nadu. He studied engineering as an undergraduate and has two post graduate degrees – an MS in Finance and an MBA. After he returned to India in 2009, his work has mostly been around elections.
His company Mindspace Analytics was behind the strategy for Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s campaign in Tamil Nadu in 2016. Later, he worked closely with BJP leader and Home Minister Amit Shah in 2019. The same year, he managed DMK’s Lok Sabha campaign.
However, it is said, he decided to join the Congress because he preferred the grand old party’s worldview and collective wisdom.
Unlike Prashant Kishor, who brings in a team of his own to each party he works for, Kanugolu is known to build an election team from scratch for each of his political parties. This way, even if he is not around to manage, the team can take care of future elections.
What Lies in the Future?
According to those in the know, Sunil Kanugolu is expected to get the support that he deserves within the Congress, now that Karnataka elections proved to be a success.
He has finally become an 'insider' in the grand old party, whose leaders could be more open to his style of electioneering in the future.
Next, he will concentrate on Congress’ campaign in Telangana, where Assembly elections are expected to be held in 2023.
But Kanugolu’s eyes will be set on Lok Sabha elections 2024, during which he is expected to play a pivotal role for the Congress. A hands-on strategist, he is known to speak to everyone in the Congress – from Rahul Gandhi to PCC presidents and even young workers in his team.
The Lok Sabha elections could be an acid test for the 40-year-old’s prowess.