Sunil Kanugolu – the strategist credited with orchestrating the Congress’ wins in Karnataka and Telangana – will not be part of its campaign for the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Earlier part of the Congress’ ‘Task Force 2024’, he will now focus on its Haryana and Maharashtra campaigns, sources told NDTV Friday.
Mr Kanugolu’s redeployment has been attributed to the fact he already has teams in place in those two states – both of which vote this year – and to a Congress keen to build on last year’s victories in the Karnataka and Telangana, recording big wins over the ruling BJP and BRS, respectively.
However, news the Congress’ key poll tactician will not be on hand to guide the party in the April/May national election has raised eyebrows. A senior leader, holding the rank of General Secretary, acknowledged his absence on the Lok Sabha campaign is a “slight setback”, but told NDTV the Congress believes there is greater long-term benefit if he can use his ‘Midas touch’, to win key states from the BJP.
Mr Kanugolu, sources added, will also continue to work with the Congress’ governments in Karnataka, where he his now Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s primary advisor, with a cabinet rank, and Telangana, where he ousted ex-Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao and the BRS that has ruled since 2014.
The importance of Mr Kanugolu to the Congress’ election machinery is perhaps best illustrated by the party’s dismal performances in last year’s Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan elections.
Mr Kanugolu held initial talks with leaders in those states, but neither Kamal Nath nor Ashok Gehlot, the party’s oldest and de facto bosses in each, agreed to his demands.
The Congress lost badly in each state. Sources later told NDTV the wins in Karnataka and Telangana were the result of Mr Kanugolu being given a free hand in each.
The math behind the Congress’ Lok Sabha election campaign is much more complicated, particularly with the party juggling multiple allies, and seat-sharing demands, as part of the INDIA opposition bloc.
In that context, Mr Kanugolu, hailed as a “man of ideas, with a handle on the big picture”, would have been a valuable asset, particularly since he has experience with INDIA allies, having worked with the DMK for the 2019 general election and winning Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s party 38 of the state’s 39 Lok Sabha seats. He has also worked with the BJP; he was part of its 2014 campaign.
Mr Kanugolu is the second big poll strategist to step back from the Congress’ national poll plans, after master tactician Prashant Kishor confirmed, in 2022, he would not work with the party.
Prashant Kishor, who worked with the BJP’s winning campaigns and then turned around to guide Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to a statement win over his former employers, wanted wholesale reforms within the party, something with which it was not comfortable.
The Congress, though, is likely thinking (very) long-term. Wins in Karnataka and Telangana (and Himachal Pradesh, another state where Mr Kanugolu aided the party) must be balanced against major losses, such as those in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh this year, and Punjab in 2022.
The Congress was the ruling party in three of these four states before disjointed campaigns gave the BJP and the AAP (which picked up Punjab) wins they should not have had. The party now has governments (of its own) in just three states compared to the BJP’s 12. It is likely it is banking on Mr Kanugolu, and his field surveys, to win over and strengthen its position in key states as it looks to build a strong base.
Haryana, where the BJP is not in a strong position despite holding the chief minister’s post, and Maharashtra, a state in turmoil since last year’s split in the Shiv Sena, which dumped the Congress out of power (it was part of the tripartite Maha Vikas Aghadi government), seem good places to start.
Andhra Pradesh, which is also scheduled to vote this year, will likely be passed over by Mr Kanugolu given the Congress doesn’t really have a presence there, despite the recent entrance of YS Sharmila.
Among the other states heading for Assembly elections in 2024 are Odisha, where Chief Minister Naveen Patna’s BJD has a stranglehold, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. Jharkhand will also vote but the Congress is already part of the government there, having allied with Chief Minister Hemant Soren’s JMM.
The big test will be Jammu and Kashmir, which, if the Supreme Court’s order is followed, will hold a first election since the controversial scrapping of special status under Article 370. The last Assembly poll in J&K was in 2014.
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