Rahul Gandhi’s Trouble-Shooter: The Steady Rise of KC Venugopal
From a college volleyball player to Rahul Gandhi’s troubleshooter, it has been a steady rise for KC Venugopal
When Congress president Rahul Gandhi appointed Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the party’s general secretary in-charge for Uttar Pradesh East last week, he made another key appointment. KC Venugopal was given the key position of General Secretary (Organisation) of the All India Congress Committee. This is a crucial post as now all the party’s appointments will go through him.
He was already the party’s general secretary in-charge for Karnataka, a responsibility that he will continue to hold.
Even though Venugopal’s appointment came before the details about Priyanka Gandhi’s inclusion in the Congress press release, it escaped the notice of many due to the huge importance of the second announcement.
Ashok Gehlot’s Replacement
The Congress had been looking for a new general secretary (organisation) for over a month, after the previous incumbent Ashok Gehlot was sworn in as chief minister of Rajasthan in December. Over the past one year, Gehlot had emerged as the de-facto number two in the Congress due to his seniority as well as the manner in which he led an effective campaign for the Congress in the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections.
The appointment of 56-year-old Venugopal marks an important departure from an unsaid rule in the Congress that only a senior leader would hold the position of general secretary (organisation). Under Sonia Gandhi’s presidentship, the post was occupied for a long time by her close adviser Janardan Dwivedi.
Venugopal was picked ahead of more senior general secretaries like Motilal Vora, Mallikarjun Kharge, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ambika Soni, Harish Rawat and Luizinho Faleiro. Many see this as a sign of Rahul Gandhi bringing about a generational change in the Congress.
Why Was Venugopal Chosen?
What reportedly went in Venugopal’s favour is the seemingly effective manner in which he has acted as the Congress’ trouble-shooter in Karnataka.
When the results for the Karnataka Assembly elections were announced in May last year, it soon became clear that the BJP is emerging as the single largest party but will fall short of a majority. The Congress was quick to reach out to the Janata Dal (Secular) for the formation of a coalition government in the state. The credit partly went to Venugopal. This was in contrast to the fiasco in 2017 in Goa, where the Congress delayed in approaching the Goa Forward party, giving the BJP an opening to form the government in the state despite having lesser numbers.
However Venugopal’s job in Karnataka didn’t end with the formation of the government. The BJP has reportedly made three attempts to topple the JD(S)-Congress coalition government, the most recent one being in January 2019. Venugopal and the Congress leadership in Karnataka have had to work overtime to keep the party’s flock together.
Having acquired the reputation of a troubleshooter, Venugopal was deputed by Rahul Gandhi during the impasse between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot after the Congress’ victory in the Rajasthan Assembly elections in December 2018.
The fact that Venugopal was sent to Rajasthan on the day of the results itself showed that he had acquired an importance that went beyond the state he was assigned.
Student Leader To Union Minister
KC Venugopal’s rise also reflects the Gandhi family’s faith in party leaders from Kerala. It is one of the few states where the Congress has a well-oiled machinery. Almost all the Kerala leaders who occupy important positions in the Congress’ central leadership, such as AK Antony, Oommen Chandy and Venugopal, have come up through Kerala Students’ Union (KSU).
Belonging to the Nair community, Venugopal joined KSU during his college days in the temple town of Payyanur in Kerala's Kannur district. He was reportedly a university-level volleyball player as well. He did his Master’s in Mathematics from Calicut University and went on to become the state president of the Youth Congress.
Kannur district in North Kerala has witnessed some of the worst political violence involving CPI(M) and RSS cadres. The Congress in the area was mostly a bystander in this rivalry. Venugopal’s hometown Payyanur in particular is a CPI(M) fortress. The Left has never lost the seat, winning it continuously since 1965. In 1996, it was represented by Pinarayi Vijayan, who is now the chief minister of Kerala.
With little political prospects in his town, Venugopal shifted base to Alappuzha in the southern part of Kerala and won from there in the 1996 Assembly elections. He won the next two elections – 2001 and 2006 - from the seat.
During the beginning of his career, Venugopal is known to have been close to the wily K Karunakaran who dominated the Congress in Kerala through the 1980s and 1990s. However, he later fell out with the Karunakaran faction and grew close to AK Antony, the head of the rival camp.
AK Antony’s support has been instrumental in Venugopal’s rise at the Centre. Antony vouching for Venugopal is part of the reason why Rahul Gandhi came to place trust in him.
When Oommen Chandy became chief minister for the first time in 2004, he made Venugopal in-charge of two key ministries: tourism and Devaswom (temple administration).
In 2009, Venugopal was elected to the Lok Sabha from Alappuzha when the UPA won a second term in office. After Shashi Tharoor resigned from the Union ministry, there were demands from the Nair lobby within the Congress that Venugopal be made a minister. They saw him as a “Kerala Nair” as opposed to Shashi Tharoor, who was seen as a “Delhi Nair”. In 2011, Venugopal got his chance and joined as minister of state for power and was later shifted to the civil aviation ministry.
As MoS for civil aviation, he said to have busted a ticketing scam in Air India. While traveling on the Delhi-Kochi-Thiruvananthapuram flight, he discovered several vacant seats despite the fact that a minister was denied a seat in the same flight due to “non-availability of tickets”. When he asked for the passenger list, the crew failed to produce one. Air India launched an inquiry and two officials were suspended.
Since 2014, he has been the deputy whip of the Congress in the Lok Sabha and was appointed as AICC general secretary in-charge for Karnataka in 2017.
Mixed Reactions Within the Congress
By most accounts, Venugopal has Rahul Gandhi’s ear and is becoming increasingly influential in the Congress. This is reflected in his appointment as the General Secretary (Organisation). For instance, soon after Rahul Gandhi announced this week that the Congress will introduce Minimum Income Guarantee if it comes to power, Venugopal reached out to the state Congress units asking them disseminate the Congress president’s message through press conferences and on social media.
However, not everyone is impressed with his appointment.
“He is not a very good communicator. And this is a problem since he has to deal with Pradesh Congress’ office bearers from across the country,” revealed a Congress functionary in Karnataka.
Some also point out that there was merit in having a senior leader as General Secretary (Organisation) as the job partly involves sending directives to Pradesh Congress Chiefs, many of whom are extremely senior themselves.
Ashok Gehlot is said to have been a perfect fit for the job,being a two term chief minister and a strong leader with mass following in his own state. He also had a quiet but persuasive way of getting things done.Therefore despite his sincerity, it might not be easy for Venugopal to step into Gehlot’s shoes.
“More than Gehlot, Venugopal is in the line of earlier general secretaries who were (supposedly) Rahul Gandhi’s picks – such as Madhusudan Mistry and CP Joshi. However, Venugopal has been more effective (than them)” revealed a party insider.
With elections round the corner, Venugopal will have to hit the ground running. The perception that he has the full support of Rahul Gandhi might make his task a little easier. However, taking senior leaders along would be as much of a challenge for Venugopal as it would be for the Congress president.
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