A name stood out as Congress president Sonia Gandhi announced the party’s 2024 Lok Sabha election task force on Tuesday. Along with veteran leaders such as P Chidambaram, Mukul Wasnik, Jairam Ramesh, K C Venugopal, Ajay Maken, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, and Randeep Singh Surjewala, poll strategist Sunil Kanugolu also features in the panel.
Kanugolu’s entry into the Congress set-up comes weeks after fellow election strategist and former colleague Prashant Kishor declined the party’s offer to join it. At the time, sources had said that Kishor, popularly known as PK, turned down the Congress after it refused to give him a “free hand” while Kishor said the party required “leadership and collective will to fix the deep-rooted structural problems through transformational reforms”.
Asked whether Kanugolu had joined the party, Surjewala said, “Yes, he is a member of the Congress party.”
Kanugolu, who does not have any online presence, is an elusive figure, unlike Kishor, and their modus operandi also differs considerably. The two worked together in 2014 before parting ways. Earlier this year, the Congress hired the services of Kanugolu’s company Mindshare Analytics for the Karnataka state elections scheduled for next year. According to a person who has known the election strategist for five years, “he knows his limits, he never tries to patronise or overpower his clients, neither does he take credit nor does he flaunt his connections”.
The poll strategist’s low profile caught the attention of the Congress, which saw its engagement with Kishor turn into a public spectacle for 10 days last month. “Even the photograph circulating on social media as that of his (Kanugolu) is of his brother,” a Congress leader recently told The Indian Express. “So, you can understand his style of functioning. He prefers to remain in the background. My impression is that he does not impose his views and ideas on the party. Every party has its strengths and weaknesses. Every party is different in the way it functions. He understands that and tries to work with the party.”
After parting ways with Kishor and striking out on his own, Kanugolu returned to the political mainstream by designing DMK chief and current Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s “Namakku Naame” campaign ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls. Though the campaign was successful and elevated Stalin’s public image, the DMK failed to win as a third front split the votes and helped the AIADMK retain power despite a strong anti-incumbency factor. As a Congress leader put it, “The DMK lost but Stalin emerged as a leader.”
Someone who worked with the political consultant during his time with the DMK pointed out another difference between him and Kishor. “Unlike Kishor, Sunil builds a team drawn from the party and that remains intact even after polls.”
Following the stint in Tamil Nadu, Kanugolu worked closely with Amit Shah in Delhi till February 2018. He shaped successful campaigns for the BJP, including in the state elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Karnataka, with the help of a team of 300 people.
Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the political operative returned to the DMK camp and helped the United Progressive Alliance win 38 of the state’s 39 parliamentary constituencies.
But he parted ways with the DMK before last year’s Assembly elections after Stalin sought Kishor’s help. “We suggested that he work with Kishor but it was not acceptable to Sunil,” said a senior DMK leader. “Later, we realised that Kishor also wouldn’t have agreed to work with Sunil.”
The election strategist switched sides and advised the AIADMK but could not stop it from getting ousted from power. A person who knows Kanugolu said, “I assume that his relationship with DMK is not great, may not even be in talking terms.”
Last year, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi met Kanugolu around the same time they reportedly held talks with Kishor. In the end, they chose Mindshare Analytics for the Karnataka campaign. Now, Kanugolu has again come out on top at Kishor’s expense.