How Strategist Sunil Kanugolu Helped Congress Win Karnataka & Telangana

"He seems to be the one person besides the Gandhis the Congress can't do without," said a Telangana Congress leader.

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If there's one thing the Congress in India has learnt after successive elections in the last two years or so is to trust Sunil Kanugolu wherever he may lead them. From ginning up support from the cadre and crafting numerous stump speeches for leaders in the party, to providing them enough ammunition and armour to fight the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the enigmatic strategist has delivered wins when the Congress needed it the most.

"He seems to be the one person besides the Gandhis the Congress can't do without," said a senior spokesperson of the Telangana Congress who did not wish to be named.

But who is Sunil Kanugolu? 


Who Is Sunil Kanugolu?  

He could almost qualify to be a Delphian – the mythological Greek character who would deliver the right messages from Apollo to those that sought guidance. However, unlike the Delphic oracle that was known to shroud its messages in obscurity, Sunil Kanugolu's style is sharp, precise, and result-oriented. He is allergic to media attention, but his colleagues say they have met few that understand the media and messaging as well as he does.  

But before all that, he is a cosmopolitan Indian – a Telugu who lives in Bengaluru with a strong connect with the other bustling southern metro, Chennai. But he is also reportedly very fluent in Gujarati and Malayalam besides being professionally conversant in Hindi and English.

Before being a behind-the-scenes political strategist and his association with India's campaign guru Prashant Kishor's (PK's) I-PAC where he cut his teeth, 40-year-old Sunil did what every other Indian of his generation would do – ship themselves to the US to pursue higher studies.

After his secondary education in Chennai, Sunil is known to have pursued his MS in Finance and an MBA degree before returning to India. While not much is known about his years thereafter, he shot to fame for being one of PK's top generals in the campaigns that I-PAC led for the BJP and many other parties subsequently.  


Between 2014 and 2019, Sunil assisted several parties being part of Prashant Kishor's I-PAC and subsequently the BJP's in-house firm Association of a Billion Minds (ABM) before he established Mind Share Analytics, the firm that he leads from the front and centre.

PK, Sunil, and other generals had safely deposited many states – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Gujarat for the BJP in the initial years during their association.

"Though we have been in politics for nearly four decades, all the leaders from Amit Shah, MK Stalin, and Rahul Gandhi have learnt how to decipher the science of politics from working alongside such strategists," said a senior DMK spokesperson who worked closely with Kanugolu during the 2019 parliamentary election campaign.

"It is about changing calculations and adapting our messages to mirror the mood of the public unlike going with one theme or a set of poll-based issues that used to dominate politics of the yesteryears," the DMK leader said, admitting that this is something Kanugolu and team are adept at.  

Karnataka, Telangana, and Counting…  

After delivering a spectacular win for the Congress party in Karnataka, the Telangana red carpet was rolled for Kanugolu, albeit with a condition to become a full-time AICC member. More so after Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao had invited Kanugolu for a meeting at his farm house in Erraveli, Gajwel, the de facto Secretariat.

"We knew the Telangana win was crucial for us to make our way into southern India again. The Gandhis were clear that about the exclusivity of Sunil's goodwill and loyalty," the Congress spokesperson said. Once this procedure was through, it was time for action.  

If 'Pay CM' was the cornerstone of the Karnataka campaign, it was 'Bye, Bye KCR' and 'Kaleshwaram ATM' that thundered through Telangana and tore into KCR's statehood sentiment.  

A former member of Kanugolu's team who spoke to The Quint on the condition of anonymity, said, "Mind Share ensured that the Karnataka advantage spilled over to Telangana as well. So, while the Karnataka government ads spoke of the Congress' six guarantees in Telangana, the campaigns in Telangana focused on the negative messaging around the Bharath Rashtra Samithi."

Given that a significant number of Telugu-speaking people, including Kanugolu, live in Bengaluru, the population in Karnataka is known to have considerable influence on many border areas that the Congress is seen to have swept.

Other political analysts who have watched the Congress campaign closely say Kanugolu knew when to play up the minorities card, the constituencies where the BJP was polarising votes, and how to pitch the array of anti-poverty schemes that the Congress announced.

"The Congress' vision for development was not very clear unlike the BJP's that was loud about the development agenda. So, there were just a handful of other themes that Kanugolu could play with to engineer a win," Prof Satish, the former Head of Political Sciences in Hyderabad Central University, said.

Team Telangana  

With the BJP having conceded space as the runner-up around August this year, there was little time to squander after the Congress realised the former Andhra Pradesh that repeatedly propelled them to power successively from 1959 could be theirs to rule again as Telangana.  

After the 'six guarantees' speech by Sonia Gandhi at the Congress Working Committee in September, the wheels for the second southern election were set in motion. Kanugolu was again made chairman of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) Election Strategy Committee and the blueprint began to be enforced.

Mallu Ravi, the 70-year-old Congress veteran who was a special representative from Andhra Pradesh to the Union government during the UPA regime, said:

"We were given a plan for every district. The pro and cons of the sitting MLA, key issues of the constituency, and the narrative was handed to every potential candidate from the Congress."

The war room was set up with Uttam Kumar Reddy, Revanth Reddy, Bhatti Vikramarka, and Madhu Yaskhi Goud being in charge of whetting and implementing the plan of action handed to the Congress.  

"Consistency is key. Even in politics. This is the message that our politicians are now beginning to understand," said Sravanth Devabhaktini, Co-Founder of India Intentions, another political analytics and election management firm that has assisted more than 15 MLAs across the three main parties to win their seats in Telangana.

According to Devabhaktini, the Congress' campaign was centred around the vilification of KCR's welfare schemes that suffered a poor image because of flawed implementation. "The Telangana win is because the Congress completely hogged the anti-incumbency narrative," the strategist said. In the eyes of its backers, the videos, GIFs, and memes attacked KCR and occupied the minds of the people as the key opponent of the KCR regime.  


21st Century and Gen Z Politics  

Large meetings and sloganeering are so passe. What's blaze is interactions with an intimate crowd of specific homogeneity. Social media influencers, IT crowds, students, and working women; selfies and reels, mobile phones and tablets – this is the current campaigning ground.   

Kanugolu's success in no small measure lies in the fact that he is able to convey the message to strike a chord with Gen Z and with the rural masses equally. "Catchy slogans, bullet a minute-videos, and media management – these are his go-to game plans," Prof Satish said. While most of the parties count heavily on booth management and poll engineering, the Congress' war room hero many say has mastered the art of playing politics online.  

Kanugolu's former team member said, "The Congress had an edge. They were successful in taking the public anger against KCR successfully." Every election has a theme. The pride of Telangana statehood was replaced by anger, disappointment, and disgruntlement in Telangana. And Kanugolu’s success lies in whipping up this sentiment, allowing it to last through the campaign until the votes have been cast and the seats have been netted. 

After the BJP's stellar performance in the Hindi heartland, the dominant emotion seems to be 'Bar Bar Modi'. The parliament election is barely four-five months away. Kanugolu is also a Member of Task Force 2024 – a team created by the Congress to execute the Nav Sankalp declaration adopted in Udaipur. The unspoken idea is to help the INDIA alliance to power in Delhi. While the alliance's Prime Ministerial candidate is still unknown, the known face behind the campaign will still be Sunil Kanugolu.  

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