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Who Is Sunil Kanugolu? The Man Behind Congress' Strategy for the 2024 Elections

As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

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It is said Sunil Kanugolu speaks six languages -- English, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, and Gujarati – with varying degrees of efficiency. But the poll strategist, who is now an Indian National Congress member, is hardly seen hogging media attention with either statements or public appearances. A key member of Congress’ 2024 task force, 39-year-old Kanugolu of Mindshare Analytics is known to be elusive, unlike I-PAC’s strategist-turned-politician Prashant Kishor.

He maintains a low profile even as we approach three high-intensity Legislative Assembly elections – in Karnataka (2023), Gujarat (2022), and Telangana (2023) – that he is reportedly managing for the Congress.

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Kanugolu’s strong suit, however, is not just the sense of enigma that he has created, about himself, by staying silent.

Kanugolu is of value to the Congress also because he is an invisible man, by choice, in a party whose top leaders are known to fight for visibility. Congress’ Bharat Jodo Yatra owes some of its growing ubiquitous appeal to his silence too.  
As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Karnataka Congress President DK Shivakumar and former CM Siddaramaiah during Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Chamarajanagar district.

(Photo: PTI)

Sunil Kanugolu, from what The Quint has learnt about his operations, is not elusive when it comes to work. He interacts freely with his party colleagues on a daily basis, and is often blunt when it comes to management. At the same time Kanugolu is sure, it is learnt, that he would never want to be a mass-leader in the public eye and seek votes for himself.

For Kanugolu, it is learnt from those close to him, election strategy is a career of choice. Unlike Kishor, with whom he had worked in the past before parting ways in 2014 after BJP’s ascent to power in the Centre, Kanugolu does not want to float or lead a political party.

As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

Rahul Gandhi on the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Kerala.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

So, for him, the Congress could be an ideal destination. To an extent, for the Congress too, Kanugolu could be the right man for the job. He can be the silent force, the ear to the ground that the grand old party badly needs. Moreover, it is widely believed in the Congress, he is Rahul Gandhi's man – a close confidant.

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What's Sunil Kanugolu's Background?

Those who know Kanugolu’s method of functioning told The Quint that the poll strategist has been the man behind the Congress’ successful, catchy campaigns – from the PayCM campaign in Karnataka to the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

But who is Sunil Kanugolu?

His father is a Kannadiga and mother, a Telugu but Kanugolu lived a long part of his life in Tamil Nadu.

He studied mostly in Chennai till he left for the US. He studied engineering as an under graduate. He also has two post graduate degrees – an MS in Finance and an MBA. He returned to India from the US in 2009.

His noteworthy campaigns as key strategist include the one for Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 2016. Later, he reportedly worked closely with Home Minister and BJP leader Amit Shah till 2018 and championed the BJP’s campaigns in several states. In 2019, he managed the DMK’s campaign once again in Tamil Nadu.

As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with an elderly supporter during the party's Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Kurnool district, Andhra Pradesh.

(Photo: PTI)

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What Kanugolu Can Do Behind the Scenes

While his run so far has been largely successful, to some the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY), gives a glimpse of what Kanugolu can do for the Congress. It seems, the idea behind BJY has been to help create an antithesis to one of the most notoriously successful political journeys that India had witnessed – the 1990 Rath Yatra of BJP’s LK Advani – which, with its Ram Mandir agenda, arguably polarised large parts of India on communal lines.

As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

LK Advani during his Rath Yatra.

(Photo: PTI)

Advani’s yatra, which may have led to the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992, catapulted the BJP to power in 1993. Will the Congress manage to resurrect itself through the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which is built on the premise of unity, seemingly, to position itself as the exact opposite of what the Rath Yatra stood for?
As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

Murli Manohar Joshi, Kalyan Singh, LK Advani and Uma Bharti (from left to right) at a public function.

(Photo: PTI)

The striking dissimilarities between the two journeys are not accidental, those who are aware of Kanugolu’s strategies told The Quint. However, some top leaders of the Congress told The Quint that Kanugolu does not do much for the BJY. The whole credit for the success of the BJY goes to senior congress leaders Digvijay Singh and Jairam Ramesh, a senior leader of the party stressed.

As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during Congress Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Mysuru on Monday, Oct. 03, 2022.

(Photo: Dhananjay Yadav/IANS)

Rath Yatra which lasted for a short duration of time, between 25 September to 30 October 1990, spanning a distance from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, created the image of a rising Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which was out to ‘reclaim’ not just Ayodhya but also India from the hands of ‘psuedo-secular, minority-appeasing’ politics, as the BJP’s website now claims.

As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

Advani’s Rath Yatra was stopped short a week before he could be part of VHP’s kar seva in Ayodhya.

(Photo: Twitter)

The yatra created the ripple-effect it had set out to achieve - fomenting Mandir-Masjid politics that still plays out in India’s political scene, in some form or the other. How? By reaching out and encouraging the public to follow an idea – Hindutva – instead of a party. It sought a temple instead of votes.   

The Bharat Jodo Yatra, which the Congress may rather compare with Gandhi’s Dandi March, seems to be aiming to displace the lasting effects of Advani’s yatra with a different message – unity of India.

BJY seems to be seeking togetherness and not votes, at least on the face of it. This explains the yatra's conscious effort to steer away from states about to go to the polls, such as Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

Rahul Gandhi marching during his Bharat Jodo Yatra in Karnataka.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

In the BJY, however, one may not find Sunil Kanugolu. For starters, the strategist who travels 20 days a month for his work, only remotely manages the Congress' moves. Between constant phone conversations and meetings that he attends in person, Sunil Kanugolu, remains on point even as he does not come into the limelight, it is learnt.

His presence, however, has been felt in the moments that BJY has so far captured on social media – from Rahul Gandhi walking with farmers to slain journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh's mother, a Congress leader said.

As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with assassinated journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh's mother Indira and sister Kavitha during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Mandya district, Friday, 7 October.

(Photo: PTI)

How else is BJY a strategic move?  

The Bharat Jodo Yatra is not as vague as the ‘Idea of India’ – a campaign –line which the Congress floated before 2019 elections that shrunk the party’s presence in Lok Sabha.

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From Corruption to Unity, Old Poll Tropes Make a Comeback

For Sunil Kanugolu, the old tropes over which elections used to be fought before 2014 still matter, those in know have told The Quint. In Karnataka, for instance, the Congress’ focus has been on Bharatiya Janata Party government’s alleged corruption record.

But can elections still be fought over corruption in a country where consolidation of the majoritarian votes seems to do the trick?
As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

LoP Siddaramaiah, Karnataka Congress Chief DK Shivakumar and party national spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala seen marching with 'PayCM' posters. 

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

“People understand corruption to an extent. But when massive corruption is coupled with bad governance, people grow frustrated. The idea behind the PayCM campaign was to make people understand the scale of poor governance and corruption. It worked,” a source in the Congress, explained.

Even if Kanugolu had had limited role in the yatra, as some leaders of the Congress claim, Bharat Jodo Yatra too, does deal with something universal – unity. The march so far, has seemingly attracted people from different walks of life, languages, castes, religions, and genders, as it coursed through the five south Indian states – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana.

As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

Rahul Gandhi with children during his Bharat Jodo Yatra in Karnataka.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

BJY could be a right step in Rahul Gandhi’s political life. And, to some extent, Kanugolu's invisibility as an election strategist inevitably shines a light on Rahul Gandhi.

Walking several miles with Rahul in both Karnataka and Telangana, The Quint has observed Rahul Gandhi tapping into a mass-appeal which many had written off. "Even in Andhra Pradesh, where the Congress was written off after the formation of Telangana, Rahul Gandhi found a decent crowd of onlookers," a Congress leader beamed. For the Congress, these small wins have mattered. Will these snowball into a political shift in 2024 polls?

As Rahul Gandhi's BJY snakes through the southern half of India, Sunil Kanugolu remains elusive albeit with a plan.

Sonia Gandhi walking with Rahul Gandhi in Bharat Jodo Yatra in Karnataka.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/BharatJodo)

In a way, Sunil Kanugolu's strategic silence could vaguely guide what the less happy leaders of the party ought to do before 2024 election. "A politician never fights a leadership war at the cost of an electoral win," a source summarised Kanugolu's seemingly simple point of view.

Even as the Congress has a new president – Mallikarjun Kharge – and a newly energised senior leader – Rahul Gandhi – the strategy for other Congress leaders would be to throw their heft, unequivocally, behind the national leadership.

As for Kanugolu, who did have his stint with the BJP, Congress has thrown open its doors. The Quint has learnt from a source that Kanugolu finds his work "challenging and exciting," in the Congress. Will he stick on? What could work in the Congress' favour is that the career-oriented election strategist does believe, according to a source, in the party's version of social justice; which is an amalgamation of both the Gandhian and Nehruvian ideas of welfare measures and empowerment.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Congress   Hyderabad   Rahul Gandhi 

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