Months before Karnataka went to polls, when posters with a QR code titled Pay CM - 40 per cent accepted here - emerged across Bengaluru and other parts of Karnataka, little did BJP or the then chief minister Basavaraj Bommai know it would turn into a major poll plank, eventually putting them out of power.
All thanks to the two backroom men - Congress strategist and pollster Sunil Kanugolu, 41, and Sasikanth Senthil, 44 - who strategised and executed the campaign to reach the masses. KPCC chief D.K. Shivakumar was the major driving force led by Randeep Singh Surjewala and other AICC leaders on the ground. Sunil coordinated and worked with the AICC to strategise the poll campaign, while Sasikanth was on the ground inside the war room executing the campaign. If Sunil was the mastermind behind the Pay CM and 40 per cent Sarkara campaigns that toppled the BJP government, Sasikanth coordinated the entire operation and took forward the ideas. Sasikanth, with his 40-member team, and Sunil, with his 50-member team under his company called Mindshare, provided campaign strategies which reached every household in Karnataka.
“I took charge of the war room eight months ago. I came to work for the Karnataka election in July 2022 and we began devising strategies to fight the BJP. We understood that corruption was the biggest issue in Karnataka through a civil contractor’s complaint. He had alleged 40 per cent commission for all government works. Sunil came up with a narrative to take this to the people. We took it forward on the ground,” Sasikanth told THE WEEK.
The duo knew that clarity in narrative works well on the ground. From day one, they had that and the complete support of the leadership. Surjewala coordinated with the team from AICC while Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah worked closely with them, understanding their style of working.
On May 13, the Congress war room in Bengaluru, run by Sasikanth was the happiest. He was humble in victory. “It was teamwork. We worked hard. I am only the last person in the team. I did not do much. It was Surjewala, D.K. Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah who made it possible for the Congress,” Sasi told THE WEEK.
Here's a look at the two strategists:
Sunil, a protege of poll strategist Prashant Kishor, and his team of 50 were behind the creative impetus for the Congress campaign in Karnataka polls. He came into the Congress fold a year before the elections. He has worked for several political parties durings elections in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Delhi. An engineering graduate, with two postgraduate degrees in MBA and an MS in finance, Sunil worked with management consultancy firm McKinsey before returning to India. He worked with Kishor during the 2014 general elections for the BJP and Narendra Modi. Sunil then worked for the DMK and Stalin in 2016 and also in 2019. Sunil also worked for the AIADMK and Edappadi K. Palaniswami in the 2021 elections.
Sunil was deputed by the AICC – read, Rahul Gandhi – to strategise for the Karnataka polls. He took care of the overall campaign strategy, ground surveys, identified issues and breach points, assessed candidate strength and weaknesses and contributed to candidate selection as well. His Mindshare team worked on the media strategy, too, helping the Congress keep the state's focus on corruption and local issues. The two major poll planks - 40 per cent Sarkara and Pay CM campaigns - were based on the data collected by Sunil's team. Apparently, he was one of the main contributors for Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Sunil’s team was also into the branding of all the five promises - Anna Bhagya (10kg rice to each family), Gruha Jyothi (200 units of free electricity), Gruha Lakshmi (Rs 2,000 for every woman head of the family), Yuva Nidhi (Rs 3,000 for students who have graduated and are unemployed) and Uchita Prayana (free bus travel to all women across the state). These social welfare schemes were arrived at after several rounds of survey on the ground by Sunil’s team, and discussions between the research team and the party manifesto committee, and then taken forward by Shivakumar.
Surrogate pages in all social media platforms were run by the Congress like every other political party. But this time, there was more effort and the page admins coordinated with fan pages or grassroot workers to reach out to community groups and local WhatsApp groups. The narrative and the media team were guided and coordinated by Priyank Kharge, son of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge. Everyday tasks were assigned to these teams accordingly.
Sunil and his team reported directly to Rahul Gandhi and the AICC in Delhi. It was from the war room, the teams decided to highlight issues of dalits, tribals and OBCs. Congress worked on the Lingayat outreach through these teams which helped them land a decisive win in the election. More importantly, the BJP workers' fatigue was also utilised on the ground by the Congress creatively.
A former IAS officer who was in service in Karnataka for over 10 years (from 2009 to 2019, when he quit as the Dakshina Kannada collector), Sasikanth knew the length and breadth of the state. He also had hands-on experience in finding the pulse of the people, having conducted over 10 elections. With proven organisational skills, Sasikanth joined the Congress in December 2020.
Sasikanth’s primary role was to gather political intelligence from the ground. He started working for the Karnataka polls from as early as July 2022, and organised several protests against the BJP government.
He was also in charge of booth-level management, activating Congress workers, outreach, talking to legal and civil rights groups, activists, women groups, Muslims, and dalit groups. He was also into team monitoring, report gathering and coordinating strategy. “If a creative idea comes to the party, I execute it by staying in touch with the combined creative team,” Sasikanth told THE WEEK from Bengaluru.
Strategising was Sunil's forte, while integrating it into the party system and using the machinery to implement the strategy on the ground was Sasikanth’s role. He had the experience and knew the language, too. The latter was doing a lot of micro-management, according to insiders in the war room. His biggest challenge was to make the party workers work, which he managed with Shivakumar's support.
The Congress also had apartment committees to reach out to the voters in the apartments, which was done by the party for the first time. In the earlier elections, the BJP had formed such apartment committees, but this time the Congress outsmarted the BJP. Sasikanth ensured the Congress went for a door-to-door campaign with the five promises. The silent campaign was done by the civil rights groups and anti-corruption groups who created the narrative for the polls.
Having passed with flying colours, the duo is now likely to work for the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and the Lok Sabha polls in 2024.