'When BJP asks Modi vs Who, the answer is Modi vs Common Man': Mallikarjun Kharge

Kharge is facing his toughest challenge since becoming the Congress president

34-Mallikarjun-Kharge Mallikarjun Kharge | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Interview/ Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress president

A veteran of many poll battles, Mallikarjun Kharge is facing his toughest challenge since he became Congress president in October 2022. The 81-year-old is leading not just the grand old party’s campaign for the Lok Sabha polls, but also helming the opposition INDIA bloc’s fight against the formidable BJP.

Where is the Modi guarantee of two crore jobs; where is the Rs15 lakh in every account; where is the guarantee of doubling farmers’ income?
By talking only about dalit prime minister, you are making that person small.... That is what Modi did. He claims he made a tribal President. But why did you not take her to the Ram Mandir with you?

THE WEEK caught up with Kharge as he took a breather on the occasion of Ugadi, the New Year’s Day for Kannadigas, at his family home ‘Samyak’ in Bengaluru. Described by a close aide of Kharge as his “recharge zone”, Samyak is where he loves to be in the midst of his children and grandchildren. After the quick break, Kharge would be off to Delhi to resume the hectic election campaign. He and Rahul Gandhi are the Team Congress’s lead pair in the poll arena.

In a detailed interview, Kharge was at his combative best as he took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP on a range of issues―from election guarantees, the Ram Temple, the PM’s intense focus on southern states and his attacks on opposition leaders on the issue of corruption, to electoral bonds and the income tax department’s action against the Congress. He also spoke about the sudden exit of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar from the INDIA bloc, the refusal of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to ally with the Congress, and the alleged tokenism that the Modi government displayed while nominating a dalit, and then an adivasi, to the country’s top constitutional post. Excerpts:

Q/ What is the significance of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls?

A/ Every election comes with its own challenges and every election will be different. This is the 14th Lok Sabha election I am seeing after I entered politics. The last 10 years of the Modi government have been a huge disaster for the nation. Look at the mismanagement of the economy. While the [Congress-led United Progressive Alliance] government was able to lift 26 crore people out of poverty, this government has pushed 80 crore people to live on free rations. Look at the unemployment situation―83 per cent of the unemployed are youth under 34. Look at how demonetisation was announced. Look at fuel prices today. The Covid crisis was badly mismanaged.

The Modi government’s handling of national security is a huge failure. It has been four years since Chinese troops attacked and killed Indian soldiers. The Prime Minister said, ‘Na koi ghusa tha, na koi ghusa hai’, and gave a clean chit to the Chinese. Look at the internal security failures. Manipur has been burning for more than a year and the PM has no time for it.

Q/ What are your main challenges in the elections?

A/ We are mainly concerned about the Constitution and protecting democracy. These are our two main aims. We are fighting to protect the Constitution. That is why we have formed alliances.

Modi is behaving as an autocrat and that is going to harm the country. I am here today; I may not be there tomorrow. I am nearly 82. But the country has to go a long way, and our future generation should continue to enjoy the fruits of freedom and the Constitution.

We do not have resources, but against all odds, we will fight.

Q/ It is felt that the INDIA bloc did not turn out as originally envisaged. Nitish Kumar left the alliance; the Rashtriya Lok Dal left; the Trinamool Congress is fighting on its own.

A/ There is nothing wrong in the alliance. Some people have separate agendas and some people are afraid of the ruling party. Otherwise, why should Nitish go? It is I who called him to my house. It is I who organised the first meeting in my house. [Sharad] Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray, Nitish, Tejashvi [Yadav], the Rashtriya Lok Dal. The leaders also included Stalin, [T.R.] Baalu and Hemant Soren. We held talks with the Trinamool Congress. Some people have reservations that have to do with their own problems.

Q/ Were you taken by surprise when Nitish quit the alliance?

A/ Hundred per cent; because he came to my house. And then, when we met in Patna, he claimed, ‘I have organised the meeting of INDIA alliance.’ In fact, we collected the people first. A man who wanted to take credit himself shifted. He left because he has his own problems.

Q/ Why did the Congress not succeed in forming an alliance with the Trinamool?

A/ We tried. Several rounds of talks took place. Rahul Gandhi also spoke to Mamata Banerjee. But she said, ‘Your party’s existence is not there, so we can give only two seats.’ We won two seats on our own, where is the question of the Trinamool giving two seats? Our cadres are alive. Unfortunately she did not agree [to giving us] even eight or nine seats.

Some people think they are stronger without the Congress. Our party is an age-old party and one cannot say it has vanished from the ground. We are fighting there on our own, and we also have some adjustment with the Communist parties. She also will, today or tomorrow, realise the importance of unity.

Q/ The Congress will be contesting only around 300 seats in these elections. You would require a very high strike rate to reach the triple-digit mark.

A/ I agree that we would need a very high strike rate, but we have to fight according to the situation. We do not have the resources this time, but our workers are doing their best at the ground level, and through YouTube and other media. Whatever target we have fixed in our mind or heart, we will achieve that.

Q/ What is that target?

A/ That I cannot tell now. At least we want to achieve a certain target as an alliance to prevent the BJP from coming to power. That is why, in many places, we made sacrifices. Some people say we surrendered; some say we are not able to fight. Let us lose one or two seats, but we should defeat the BJP.

Q/ Is the Congress’s Nyay an answer to ‘Modi ki guarantee’?

A/ We announced the guarantees first, but he stole our words. Now he is talking about Modi’s guarantee. Where is the Modi guarantee of two crore jobs; where is the Rs15 lakh in every account; where is the guarantee of doubling farmers’ income? Whatever he said, he never delivered, though he had two-thirds majority. He could not even fulfil his promise of running a bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai.

In the UPA’s time, we never said before the elections that we would give certain guarantees or rights. But Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh gave NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme, right to food, right to education, right to information, and health mission. What Modi said he would do, he did not implement.

PTI04_07_2024_000052A Friend becomes foe: Kharge says he was “100 per cent” surprised when Nitish Kumar (left) quit the INDIA bloc and pledged support to Modi | PTI

Q/ Modi has described your manifesto as bearing the imprint of the Muslim League.

A/ But these people were aligned with the Muslim League earlier. In 1940, Syama Prasad Mookerjee aligned with the Muslim League in elections. And such people are blaming us. Giving benefit to women, Stree Shakti, is it Muslim League agenda?

Giving Shramiks proper wages, is it Muslim League agenda? For the youth, 30 lakh vacancies will be filled up and they will be given apprenticeship. And he says, ‘This is also Muslim League.’ Helping the kisan (farmer) is also Muslim League?

He says, ‘Flip through the pages of the Congress manifesto, and you will find a whiff of the Muslim League there, and a whiff of the Communists in the remaining pages.’ Our party is a centrist party. We are following the principles laid down by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. We chose the madhyam marg (the middle path).

Modi wants to be a dictator. If this attitude continues, there would be no elections in the future. He will change the Constitution. He is already destroying democratic institutions and misusing the Enforcement Directorate, vigilance and the income tax department.

Q/ How badly affected is the Congress’s campaign because of the IT department’s action against the party?

A/ For every party, resources are very important for elections. For Rs14 lakh that was not shown in the account, you put Rs135 crore penalty? And then a cumulative penalty of Rs3,567 crore? You are digging up cases from the time [Sitaram] Kesri was treasurer in 1993-94. You are acting with vengeance. The Rs135 crore in the bank was not stolen money. You asked the banks to freeze it. You want to harass us. You want to restrict our movement because we have to utilise helicopter, flights and trains. Money is required for posters, hoardings and public meetings.

Q/ It is felt that the Congress is focusing more on the south and is on a weak footing in the north.

A/ Earlier [the BJP’s] base was in Madhya Pradesh; then they expanded to Uttarakhand and, to some extent, Himachal. And now Uttar Pradesh. These are the major areas where they got support. But they lost that last time. We won Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Yes, in UP we are weak, but with our alliance now with Akhilesh [Yadav], the BJP will be in a very difficult position. We are going to give them a tough fight and win a majority of the seats in Bihar, UP and other states.

Q/ Several leaders have left the Congress in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls.

A/ Those who are weak-minded will go. When you are ideologically weak, you will go. I can understand if a man from the Congress goes to the Samajwadi Party or some other secular party. But if a man trained in the Congress ideology, somebody who became an MLA, minister and chief minister, [somebody who spent] 75 per cent of his life in the Congress, switches over to another ideology―why? Because they were not ideologically pukka people. The kachcha people got pukka posts in the Congress. So, they are leaving. Whoever is with the Congress now, they are fighting because they are not afraid of anybody.

Q/ How do you view the BJP’s thrust on the south?

A/ He (Modi) wants to expand his party’s base in the south, where he did not get anything. As prime minister, he has got a lot of resources. So he is fully utilising it. He is not looking at governance. If he was really interested, he could have visited all places, including Manipur. He visited 14 countries in these six to seven months. But he did not go to Manipur. He had more than 300 election speeches and inaugurations. But he cannot go and speak in Manipur. He claims that ‘My decision is firm’, that ‘I have a 56-inch chest’. Why did he not say in Manipur: ‘I will fight, I will protect you’?

Q/ The BJP has described the opposition as a community of the corrupt.

A/ Yes, one more slogan is there: ‘In bhrashtachariyon ko khatam karunga’ (I will finish off the corrupt). All bhrashtacharis are going to him (Modi) only. Till today, they have taken 444 MLAs from the opposition and formed government―whether it is Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Goa, Uttarakhand, Manipur or Arunachal Pradesh. And he says, ‘Bhrashtachariyon ko yahan jagah nahi hai’ (there is no place for the corrupt here). There is space for them only in [Amit] Shah’s washing machine. Put corrupt people in it, and they will become clean.

Q/ How do you view the revelations about electoral bonds?

A/ We opposed it from day one. The government used the scheme to threaten people to donate. They used it to collect donations after clearing tenders. Recently, there was an incident where a family of dalit farmers in Gujarat was cheated and asked to donate their entire compensation amount of 010 crore to the BJP. Shell companies donated hundreds of crores to the BJP. Earlier, foreign companies could not donate. But now they set up companies in India only to donate.

Q/ Doesn’t the Congress’s promise of caste census mark a big shift in its stand on the issue?

A/ We felt caste census is important now, because we have to make programmes for the backward classes, the economically weaker sections, and even the financially and educationally weaker people in upper castes. Caste census is needed to know the status of each community. That is our intention, not to crush or humiliate any community.

Q/ The Congress manifesto is silent on the Citizenship Amendment Act.

A/ We cannot include everything in the manifesto. Some people, for the purpose of elections, do it. We do not do that.

According to the government, some 30,000 people will benefit from this legislation. These people always had other established procedures to get Indian citizenship.

Can the government deny that an Army officer who served for 30 years was put in a detention camp because of the way the National Register of Citizens and the CAA are implemented? Can they deny that nearly 20 jawans of paramilitary forces were left out of the NRC in Assam? Can the government deny that a dalit MLA was left out of the NRC?

39-The-Buddha-Vihar Man of faith: The Buddha Vihar in Karnataka, which Kharge helped construct. “As an MLA, I constructed 90 Hanuman temples,” he says | Shutterstock

Q/ And the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.

A/ The PMLA was originally created for bona fide purposes. Unfortunately, the Modi government brought in amendments with draconian provisions, and now it is being used to fight political battles. We have clearly mentioned in our manifesto that bail should be the rule in such cases to avoid misuse of power by investigative agencies.

Q/ How will the opposition answer the question ‘Modi vs who’?

A/ Modi is a dictator, an autocrat. He is asking, or his people are asking, ‘Modi vs who.’ We believe in democracy. After the polls, the alliance parties will sit and decide. Such things have happened many times. In the Janata Party regime, Morarji Desai emerged. After that, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, and later Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral.

When BJP asks ‘Modi vs who’, the answer is ‘Modi vs common man’.

Q/ How do you view the BJP’s target of 370 seats for the BJP and more than 400 for the NDA?

A/ I told you how he is working, how he is behaving, how he is threatening the democracy. How he and Shah are forcibly making people join them. So on that basis, they say, we will get majority. The total seats in the Lok Sabha is 543. He can say, I will win 600 seats. ‘Abki baar 600 paar.’

Q/ You have often become emotional while talking about dalit issues. So are we talking to the first dalit prime minister of India?

A/ These things cannot be decided in the name of dalit. You did not allow a dalit president to lay the foundation stone of the new Parliament. You people only show their faces, but actually do not help. By talking only about dalit prime minister, you are making that person small and not accepting his leadership, not accepting his merit. You are only recognising a caste. That is what Modi did. He claims he made a tribal president. But why did you not take her to the Ram Mandir with you?

Q/ You and former Congress president Sonia Gandhi did not attend the inauguration of the Ram Temple. Don’t you feel you have given a reason to the BJP to call you anti-Hindu?

A/ Was it a government function? It was a trust function, wasn’t it? Then why is Modi taking the credit for that?

Also, when you are not able to give space to the president of India, [and to] a former president who is a dalit, will you give me, an untouchable leader, space along with the prime minister in the Ram Mandir? For politics, you point the finger at me and Sonia Gandhi.

You do not allow my people to enter all temples. You do not allow them to even take drinking water. In the villages, you do not even let them have education. Our young boys, if they go in procession on a horse, you would pull them down and beat them. Such people are asking us, ‘Why have you not come [for the Ram Temple opening]?”

I constructed a huge Buddha Vihar in Gulbarga. It was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama, and President Pratibha Patil visited it the following day. In my own constituency, people believe in different faiths. As an MLA, I constructed 90 Hanuman temples. Ninety, not one or two. We are not anti-religion. Religion is required, that is also what Dr Ambedkar said. Religions have taken birth for the welfare of human beings.