Mr Venugopal chose Karunakaran, who embraced him enthusiastically, backing him to head the Youth Congress
(YC). This he did, for seven years at that. But he also realised that he had a rival: Ramesh Chennithala, also a Nair and a highly
efficient and organised politician.
Mr Chennithala fell out with Karunakaran later. But at that time, Mr Venugopal could see the glass ceiling. So slowly and skilfully, he slid out and joined Mr Antony.
It paid off. Karunakaran was ailing and died in 2010. But Mr Antony was very much a pillar of the establishment. Ahead of the Kerala assembly elections in 2011, Mr Antony persuaded Manmohan Singh to induct Mr Venugopal as a minister, arguing that the Nairs needed a voice in the council of ministers. By then, Mr Venugopal had been a three-term MLA and a minister in the state, but had resigned his Assembly seat to contest and won the Alleppey Lok Sabha seat in 2009. So he was a first-time MP and he got the power portfolio. Interestingly, his entry into the council of ministers coincided with the exit of Shashi Tharoor (also from Kerala), who had to resign over an investment matter concerning a team that took part in the Indian Premier League.
This tension was to resurface later.
The Congress lost badly in 2014 but Mr Venugopal was re-elected, again from Alleppey. In 2017, he became party general secretary. His first job was handling Goa (2017). The Congress had emerged single-largest in the 40-member assembly with 17 MLAs. But skulduggery was afoot and Digvijaya Singh and Mr Venugopal were sent to help the local Congress.
Even before the party could lay claim to form the government, one of its MLAs, Vishvajit Rane, resigned, taking two Congress MLAs with him. It was a classic crisis — and Mr Singh just could not be contacted. The Congress lost Goa to a chortling BJP.
Mr Venugopal returned to Delhi to relate the whole sorry tale of how the party snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. He also settled all the accounts promptly. This was duly noted and the next time there was a crisis — in Karnataka — it was he who was picked again. He would be sent to Maharashtra and later, Rajasthan, to douse the fire.
Then came the 2019 general election.
It became clear to the party that Rahul Gandhi’s Amethi seat was no longer safe. Various options were discussed.
P Chidambaram offered Tamil Nadu, but that meant hanging on to the coattails of the DMK. The Bellary seat in Karnataka, which Sonia Gandhi
had contested in 1999 (and won), was an option but in the delimitation it had become a reserved seat. D K Shivakumar, Congress strongman in the state, offered his brother, D K Suresh’s seat, Bengaluru Rural. But help from the Janata Dal
(Secular) would have been needed and there were no guarantees about its cooperation.
Mr Venugopal and Mr Antony offered Wayanad in Kerala, where the Congress did not have a candidate — M I Shahnavas, a two-term MP, had died in 2018. To ensure success, Mr Venugopal made the ultimate sacrifice: He opted not to fight the election, focusing instead on managing Mr Gandhi’s campaign.
The Congress lost Alleppey: Of the 20 Lok Sabha seats, it won 19. Admittedly, A M Ariff of the CPI(M) won the seat by a margin of just 10,000 votes. But Mr Gandhi won Wayanad by a huge margin. And Mr Venugopal won as well.
The commonest complaint about Mr Gandhi is that he doesn’t meet people: When Mr Tharoor sought a meeting, he was advised to make an appointment through Mr Venugopal. He baulked at this: And he is one of the group of 23.
Mr Venugopal has emerged as the go-to guy. As general secretary (organisation), he knows the party intimately now. On the other hand, proximity to the People Who Matter has earned him enemies as well. He is not especially communicative at the best of times, particularly in Hindi. However, he is valued highly by Ms Gandhi and Mr Gandhi — they consider him a loyalist, more to the point, one who can deliver. Eventually he sights are set on the chief minister’s job in Kerala. He may make it there eventually.