Behind the Congress win: Sunil Kanugolu's AICC war room for a 9-month Karnataka campaign

It was the AICC war room that pitched the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the PayCM and PayPM posters, the 40-4-40 slogan and other drivers of the Congress's success in Karnataka

Congress strategist Sunil Kanugolu (Photo Courtesy: @trrajeshtvpm)
Congress strategist Sunil Kanugolu (Photo Courtesy: @trrajeshtvpm)

Naheed Ataulla

In September 2022, citizens of Bengaluru woke up to posters across the  city with photographs of former chief minister Basavaraj Bommai on it and  the title PayCM. Similar to the QR codes used by the electronic wallet PayTM, only Bommai's face figured in the middle of the QR code with the message '40 percent accepted here'.

The poster was the beginning of the aggressive campaign launched by the Indian National Congress party ahead of the Assembly polls in May 2023. These posters asked citizens to click on the QR code, which led to a Congress website, where the alleged corruption charges against the BJP government were listed. There were over 1 lakh downloads of the QR code on the posters before the police started removing them and registered a  complaint against Congress leaders Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar.

The posters were the brainchild of political strategist Sunil Kanugolu and the All India Congress Committee (AICC) war room team based in Bengaluru. The 40 per cent was a reference to the allegations made by Karnataka contractors, who claimed BJP ministers, party MLAs and bureaucrats were taking 40 per cent of the tender amount as bribe for  state-funded infrastructure projects. 

Speaking to the National Herald, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) general secretary S.R. Mehroz Khan said the war room was launched in August 2022. Along with Kanugolu, former bureaucrat Sasikanth Senthil was chairman of the war room, and KPCC vice-president Suraj Hegde was also a leading figure. The war room was complimented by the State Congress Communications and Social Media chairperson Priyank Kharge and co-chairperson Mansoor Ali Khan.

"Each person had their responsibilities chalked out. Kanugolu had his boys in each booth of the 224 Assembly constituencies. The narratives were developed by the Communications department and we used to disseminate these to the KPCC office-bearers," Mehroz Khan said.

But the entire credit of holding the Congress party in Karnataka together and encouraging the team in the war room, Mehroz Khan said, was AICC general secretary and Karnataka in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala, who he described as "Man of the Match". Surjewala pitched camp in Bengaluru and was the driving force for the entire team. "Surjewala would call up  around midnight, get the war room opened and sit until 2.30 a.m.  discussing what has been done," said Khan. "Again by 7.00 a.m., he would be back in the war room, sipping cups of black coffee and sandwiches, which were his staple diet,'' he added.

The war room also pitched in during the 21-day Bharat Jodo Yatra by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Karnataka in October. Along with the KPCC office-bearers, it also decided which key figures would accompany Gandhi on his walk. The Bharat Jodo Yatra significantly contributed to the Congress success in the recently concluded Assembly polls—of the 57 constituencies it passed through, the party's candidates won in 37.

The heavy rains during the Yatra yielded a photo of Gandhi drenched in rain and addressing a public meeting in Mysuru, which went viral. It was to become one of the campaign highlights for the war room. Kanugolu, who is from Ballari but based in Hyderabad now, conducted multiple surveys to assess the mood of the voters, which is said to be one of the parameters adopted by the Congress leadership in selecting the candidates.

While the war room was in touch with the team on the ground in the constituencies, Kharge and Mansoor Khan's daily media interactions on the Bommai government's lapses reinforced the understanding that the Congress was focused on the common people's woes. Kharge's sustained campaign against the cash-for-jobs scam in the recruitment of police sub-inspectors was one such. At the fag end of the campaign, the war room team came up with the 40-4-40 narrative, which said Karnataka's incumbent government was a 40 per cent commission sarkara, the Four Guarantees of the Congress party, and the request that voters allow no more than 40 seats to the BJP. 

"One can say it was a super electioneering campaign and the way Surjewala managed to strike a balance between Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar by not allowing any simmering rifts between them to hamper the enthusiasm of the workers is commendable," Mehroz Khan said.

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