Sunil Kanugolu, who was appointed chief advisor to Karnataka’s newly minted chief miner Siddaramaiah, a position with a cabinet rank, isn’t the first election strateg to have entered direct politics and points to a growing recognition of the value that smart strategs, who can drive election campaigns, can bring to daily governance. In 2021, his former and certainly more famous colleague Prashant Kishor was appointed as the chief advisor to the then Punjab CM Amrinder Singh shortly ahead of the Punjab assembly elections.
Though 46-year-old Kishor moved from advising netas to becoming one himself, the field of political consultancy is now led a handful of highly-sought after members of his original I-PAC team(PTI)
Though 46-year-old Kishor moved from advising netas to becoming one himself, the field of political consultancy is now led a handful of highly-sought after members of his original I-PAC team. Once part of Team Kishor, meet the young turks carving out their own niche. “Good for them. I am happy for each one of them,” Kishor said when asked to comment on his original team.
Sunil Kanugolu was part of Kishor’s team that spearheaded the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 Lok Sabha campaign (HT Photo)
Sunil Kanugolu, Congress strategTill last year, Kanugolu (40) was an independent election consultant who had an impressive portfolio of top notch clients — he worked with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in several elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 (which the party won a big margin), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham ( DMK), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu, and briefly, the Akali Dals in Punjab.
The Chennai boy with Telegu-Kannadiga parentage, started out with Prashant Kishor in the Modi-for-PM in 2014 campaign. In fact, he was one of the original 200 people that made up the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), a group of young professionals from diverse backgrounds whose job was to come up with innovative ways to get Narendra Modi, then Gujarat’s CM elected as the Prime Miner of India. As CAG turned into I-PAC, Kanugolu, Kanugolu remained independent but continued to work with the BJP. He was good with data and left a lasting impression with those he worked.
As Kishor moved on to helping the Congress win Punjab, Kanugolu continued to work on BJP’s election strategies, tying up with another strateg Himanshu Singh to form the Association for Brilliant Minds. As BJP’s key strateg, he was often pitched against Kishor — notably in the 2017 UP elections. Their paths crossed again last year when both were pitched as possible candidates for Congress’s top election strateg in Karnataka. Kishor’s demands of being appointed top office bearer played out publicly on TV, but went nowhere. Kanugolu, meanwhile, quietly accepted Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s offer to join the party. Kanugolu successfully worked with flamboyant netas, including the two contenders for the CM’s post, Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar, for the state assembly elections held in April. He helped forge a unified presence during the campaign.
One of his more notable strategies was the 40% Sarkara campaign, a reference to allegations Karnataka Contractors’ Association which claimed that BJP leaders and officials of the previous government took 40% of the tender amount as bribe for state-funded infrastructure projects.
Up next for Kanugolu is the upcoming election in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan — all of which go to polls in December. This may prove to be tougher as Kanugolu will only have five months to get things going, instead of the year that he had in Karnataka.
Rishi Raj Singh, Founder I-PAC
Rishi Raj Singh, co-founder I-PACWhen I-PAC wrapped up its West Bengal campaign for Trinamool Congress in 2021, Prashant Kishor made a dramatic announcement that he had only previously hinted at — he was ready to take a dive into politics himself.
Since then, the group’s co-founder and director Rishi Raj Singh (33) has handled the group’s work in Andhra Pradesh for chief miner Jagan Mohan Reddy, while continuing their work for Trinamool Congress in Bengal. The former Credit Suisse employee describes Kishor as a “mentor” although he could also be described as a client now, since I-PAC is helping Kishor’s party, Jan Suraaj, formed last year, in Bihar.
“As I reflect on my experiences working alongside Prashant Kishor and the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) over the years, one crucial lesson stands out: while we cannot single-handedly change election results, we can certainly contribute from the margins streamlining party networks and enhancing their efficiency. Our role as a force multiplier is to ass parties in achieving their electoral goals.”
“However, my true commitment goes beyond winning elections or collaborating with political entities. I am dedicated to building a strong platform that enables young professionals across the country to actively participate and engage with the political domain firsthand and in the process create large-scale impact playing a part in the agenda setting exercise,” the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur graduate from 2007 batch, said.
The firm employs nearly 2,500 and the client l has only grown. Though Singh denies it, it is rumoured that I-PAC might be working with Sachin Pilot, while chief miner Ashok Gehlot has signed up with Naresh Arora of Design Boxed, who worked with DK Shivakumar in Karnataka in the recent elections.
Robbin Sharma, Showtime Consultancy
Robbin Sharma, Showtime ConsultancyUttar Pradesh-born Robbin Sharma started out in 2013 on Narendra Modi’s signature campaign, Chai pe Charcha. This was the successful play on Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyer’s comment dismissing Modi as a mere tea seller. Kishor’s team weaponised the comment against the Congress and projected them as anti-backwards classes as well as anti-aspirational which clicked with the working class.
Sharma (36) used his knowledge of his home state and worked specifically with ground workers of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the party’s ideological fount, to determine which candidates have the greatest potential to win. He stayed with I-PAC till 2018, and was one of the key strategs to work on launching Congress’ general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, in active politics ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Since then, his firm Showtime Consultancy, has worked with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in 2020, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh and the National People’s Party in Meghalaya among others.
“Politics is a continuous process whether a leader is in power or in Opposition, he always tries to strengthen his position. The role we play depends on the position of the leader. If in power, leaders want to drive governance for all, but the priority is to keep his target group happy. Even governments have adopted a campaign-based approach,” Sharma said.
“Backroom becomes front of the house when there is an increased dependency to execute things with better structure and efficiency. However, be it any role, the key is to stay connected with grassroots and have a finger on the pulse,” Sharma said on Kanugolu’s shift into politics, close on the heels of former boss, Prashant Kishor.
Abbin Theepura with Siddaramaiah
Abbin Theepura, Founder, P-MarqAbbin Theepura (33) is a newer entrant in Prashant Kishor’s team, but not in political consultancy. In 2014, he worked for then Congress miner, Kapil Sibal, on his campaign for the Lok Sabha polls. And yet, Theepura credits Kishor for kickstarting this industry.
“Credit has to go to PK for founding the political consulting industry in India. Prashant’s attention to detail, and how he strategizes has always left us stunned. When he picks up a state, he will make sure he knows the state like the back of his hand. During meetings, I recall discussing constituency-level micro issues, caste composition and other insights, where he was already aware and didn’t have to rely on reports. He remains the tallest political strateg India has ever seen. And we all will only continue to follow his footsteps with some innovation,” he said.
Theepura worked with Kishor in the UP state elections in 2017 and for Jagan Reddy in the Andhra state elections in 2019. His own firm P-Marq, which he started in 2019 conducts exit and opinion polls for elections and also works with politicians, including MB Patil, a Congress leader in Karnataka, who is now part of the government.
One of the things Theepura is most proud of is successfully projecting a win for the Bharatiya Janata Party- Janata Dal United alliance in the Bihar elections in 2020 soon after he started his own company. He was a rookie once, but now he and his firm have their own credibility.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sunetra Choudhury is the National Political Editor of the Hindustan Times. With over two decades of experience in print and television, she has authored Black Warrant (Roli,2019), Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous (Roli,2017) and Braking News (Hachette, 2010). Sunetra is the recipient of the Red Ink award in journalism in 2016 and Mary Morgan Hewett award in 2018.