Can Sunil Kanugolu bring India’s Modi down, 10 years after helping him win?

A small crack in one of the pillars supporting the world’s largest lift-irrigation project was the opening that Sunil Kanugolu was looking for as he shepherded the election campaign of the opposition Congress party in the southern Indian state of Telangana late last year.

Up against the regional Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) party whose leader K Chandrashekhar Rao had ruled Telangana since the state’s birth a decade earlier, the Congress, riding on disenchantment over alleged corruption and nepotism, was polling well.

But Kanugolu, the in-house election mastermind of the Indian National Congress or Congress party, wanted something more — something that would drive home his party’s advantage, based on a mantra that’s central to his approach.

“No election is ever won by logic. Emotions win elections,” the 40-year-old says often, according to a close confidant who requested anonymity.

In Telangana, a member of Kanugolu’s team found a photograph of the small crack in the Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project that morphed into a poll strategy to topple the BRS from power.

Mock ATM machines, branded as “Kaleshwaram ATM”, were set up in different parts of Telangana and photos of Congress workers inserting fake currency notes into the slot — which was the chief minister’s mouth — went viral. In the story that the Congress was telling, the project, constructed at a staggering cost of $9.8bn and being touted as a symbol of Telangana pride, was a crumbling testament to the BRS’ brazen corruption.

The campaign was a classic example from Kanugolu’s election strategy playbook.

“I’m not a believer in fighting elections with multiple, three-four-five items. There has to be one single narrative that you keep pushing and get the entire party, entire ecosystem, resources at your disposal to rally around. Other issues are sprinklings that you add to speeches and stuff like that,” Kanugolu’s confidant recalls him saying.

In Telangana, that “sprinkling” included publicising welfare schemes the Congress would implement for women, farmers, youth, the elderly and poor families if voted to power. “Within about a week there was a three to nine percent swing in the vote share on the basis of the promises,” a researcher with Inclusive Minds, the Bengaluru-headquartered election consultancy firm that Kanugolu runs for the Congress, told Al Jazeera.

The Congress won a clear majority and formed the government in Telangana.

A decade ago, Kanugolu, a former consultant with McKinsey, was a member of the team that strategised, shaped and implemented Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial campaign.

Now, a decade later, he is one of the top political consultants in the country and is working with the Congress to bring down PM Modi in the national elections that began on April 19 with the first phase of voting, and will be conducted in seven phases ending on June 1.

But the challenge Kanugolu faces is not just from Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but his own Congress party as well.

The Congress party has been out of power federally for 10 years, and has just 52 members of parliament (MPs) in the 543-member lower house of Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha.

In May 2022, when Kanugolu officially joined the Congress, he was inducted into an eight-member “Task Force-2024”. The plan was to let him lead the Congress’s campaigns in nine states that went to polls for their regional governments in 2023 — and then tackle the 2024 general elections.

But internal politics within the Congress derailed the state election plan and the task force failed to take off, forcing Kanugolu to narrow his focus and ambition.

He is now working on a plan B, focussing on 100-120 constituencies where the Congress either has a winning chance or wants to put up a fight as a matter of prestige. The general hired to win India’s 2024 election war by launching a full-frontal attack on Modi’s BJP is now busy managing a hundred or so snipers and trying to make sure they don’t miss their targets.

“Political consultants are not magicians. They play an important but limited role if a party is in good shape,” Sanjay Kumar, co-director of Lokniti, a New Delhi-based research organisation that studies public opinion during and between elections, told Al Jazeera.

Related Articles

Back to top button