Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge has a patriarch-like presence in his party’s Karnataka election campaign. The 80-year-old is leading from the front and has burnt the midnight oil―recently, there were visuals of him and other party leaders coming out of his Delhi residence after a meeting at 2am. Asked about this, he laughed and said that his office usually works late, but added it does not mean work does not start early. “As Congress president, I wanted to make sure that I am not found wanting,” he told THE WEEK. “I wanted the election committee, campaign committee and candidates’ names announced well ahead of time so that the candidates got ample time to campaign.”
It has been six months since Kharge was elected Congress president―he is the first non-Gandhi to occupy the post in two decades, the second dalit to do so after Jagjivan Ram, the second from Karnataka and the sixth from south India.
And it is the southern face-off between the Congress and the ruling BJP in Karnataka that would set the tone for the coming election season. The two parties will be in direct contest in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and later in the Lok Sabha elections next year.
In Karnataka, said state Congress leaders, Kharge has a calming effect on a state unit brimming with chief minister aspirants. It is believed that his presence has kept the various factions under check and has soothed nerves. He has also talked disgruntled leaders out of any plans of contesting against the party’s official candidates. Sources close to him, however, insisted that he had not micromanaged the election as he believes in collective decision-making and respects the role assigned to various leaders.
A senior Congress leader in Karnataka said that Kharge has not been overbearing in ticket allocation, including in Gulbarga, which used to be his parliamentary constituency.
It is another matter that Kharge, who had in the past aspired to become Karnataka chief minister, has found himself fending off speculation that he could get the top job if the Congress wins.
If the party does indeed dethrone the BJP, it would be a huge morale boost for the Congress as it would mean a BJP-less south India. “Mallikarjun Kharge is the senior-most Congress leader in Karnataka and one of the tallest dalit leaders in the country,” said senior Karnataka Congress leader M.B. Patil, who heads the campaign committee. “He is in the same league as Devraj Urs or R. Gundu Rao, considering his political and administrative experience. The Congress in Karnataka will definitely benefit from his guidance.”
Kharge’s political career spanned more than 40 years in Karnataka before he arrived in Delhi as a Lok Sabha member in 2009. The son of a textile mill worker, he is highly regarded for having worked his way up the organisational ladder. He earned the sobriquet ‘Solillada Sardara’ (undefeated chief) for having won 11 elections in a row. He won the assembly elections in Karnataka nine times on the trot between 1972 and 2008. He then won the Lok Sabha elections from Gulbarga in 2009 and 2014, before being defeated in 2019 by a former loyalist who joined the BJP.
Although he lost out to other leaders in the race to become chief minister at least three times, he did not work against the interests of the party. His loyalty became his USP and it has held him in good stead, especially after he moved to Delhi―he became a cabinet minister in the Manmohan Singh government. When the Congress was reduced to just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha in 2014, he was made the party’s leader in the lower house. After his 2019 loss in Gulbarga, he entered the Rajya Sabha and soon became leader of opposition. And though Kharge’s efforts to revive the Congress’s fortunes have brought him back to his home state, he insists that he will give the same amount of time and attention to every state election. “Whenever elections are held in any state, I will work 24 hours a day to ensure the Congress comes to power,” he said.
One of these states is Rajasthan, which will go to the polls in December, and where there is a long-running feud between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his former deputy, Sachin Pilot. Setting the house in order is proving to be a difficult task for Kharge―he has to balance the need to back the Gehlot government with the aspirations of Pilot. The younger leader believes he should have been made chief minister in December 2018, when the party had won the assembly elections under his leadership as state party president.
Sources close to Kharge said that, in the run-up to the Rajasthan elections, it is felt that the best bet is to not divert attention from the Gehlot government’s welfare measures. The terse message from the high command to Pilot is that the individual is not as important as the party.
Kharge, in his attempt to find a solution, has adopted a consensual approach. He has involved top leaders including Rahul Gandhi, party general secretary in charge of organisation K.C. Venugopal and party in-charge of Rajasthan affairs Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa. Kharge is also believed to have roped in veteran leader Kamal Nath in a bid to get Pilot on board and ensure that he does not get sidelined.
With little over a year left for the Lok Sabha elections, a key item on Kharge’s agenda is opposition unity. He has been convening meetings of opposition parties to work out a common floor strategy in Parliament. As leader of the opposition, he is highly respected in opposition circles and has brought about changes in the way the Congress deals with other parties. He has tried to assuage their concerns about what they feel is the big-brotherly attitude of his party.
When Kharge had taken over from Ghulam Nabi Azad as the leader of the opposition, other parties were sceptical. Azad had links in all parties and Kharge was a relative outsider. They did not know him personally. Within a week, though, the doubters changed their minds because of the manner in which he reached out to them and conducted meetings.
As per one opposition leader, it was a pleasant surprise to see that Kharge did not come to meetings with a pre-fixed agenda and would seek the views of the others first. “He has made an effort to ensure that all the parties have a say and the discussions are not led by the Congress,” said the leader.
Kharge has said that his party is ready to make sacrifices. He has been open to the idea of Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) chairperson Nitish Kumar and Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar reaching out to parties that are not comfortable sharing space with the Congress; these include the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi.
It will, however, be a challenge to work out an electoral understanding with these parties. The state units of the Congress are unlikely to be on the same page as the central leadership on this. Also, parties that see the Congress as rivals in their backyards are also expected to try and diminish its standing in the anti-BJP bloc. For example, Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee, after her recent meeting with Nitish, agreed on the need for opposition parties to come together, but suggested that the meeting be held in Patna rather than in Delhi.
Another crucial task on Kharge’s to-do list is reforms in the Congress. There have been no major changes in the organisation so far, and many feel that not holding elections to the Congress Working Committee and opting for the nomination method was a lost opportunity. “Election to the CWC would definitely have been good for the party,” said Congress leader Sandeep Dikshit. “When Mallikarjun Kharge was elected president, AICC delegates felt they were a part of the process. Similarly, had there been an election to the CWC, the delegates would have felt a sense of partnership with regard to the highest decision-making body in the party.”
Those who defend the nomination decision said it was essential not to ruffle feathers in the election-bound states. Sources close to Kharge said he was personally ready to hold elections to the CWC had it been the collective decision.
His supporters pointed out that Kharge has succeeded in ‘Congress Jodo’ to a certain extent, bringing on to the stage leaders who were identified with the Group of 23 (who wrote a letter of dissent) and were sidelined. Lok Sabha member Manish Tewari, once a regular at media briefings at the party headquarters, recently held a news conference at the AICC office after more than three years. Similarly, other members of the erstwhile G23, like former Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and former Union minister Anand Sharma, too, have been mainstreamed. Also, Kharge took his rival in the Congress’s presidential election, Shashi Tharoor, with him on his plane when he travelled to Nagaland to campaign for the recent assembly elections. However, it remains to be seen if Tharoor will figure in the new CWC.
Among other reform decisions taken at last year’s Chintan Shivir, implementation of which are pending, was the setting up of an election management department dedicated to poll preparations and a public insight department that would gather feedback from people on different subjects to help with policymaking.
“Kharge ji as a Congressman has always held party organisation and its workers in the highest esteem,” said Pranav Jha, AICC secretary and coordinator attached to the office of the party president. “He often says that, as Congress president, he is expected to implement the resolutions adopted in Udaipur. He is committed to bringing about inner party reforms and wants to take everyone along in the decision-making process.”
The key to Kharge’s functioning is the balance he strikes in his relationship with the Gandhis, especially Rahul. It is evident that Rahul, his leadership credentials burnished by the Bharat Jodo Yatra, will be the face of the Congress in the party’s public outreach. Kharge has to ensure that the organisation lives up to the electoral challenges.
Kharge has the trust of the Gandhis. He has an excellent rapport with Rahul and fiercely defends him. A staunch secularist and a strident critic of the RSS and the BJP, he is also ideologically on the same page as Rahul. When Kharge talks about collective leadership, he is extremely clear that the Gandhi family has a pivotal role to play in it.
Kharge is a unifier, something that his party and the opposition require. But the veteran leader, who was a sportsman in his youth and keenly follows cricket, needs to build partnerships and take the game deep.