Only two leaders from Karnataka have ever headed the party in the 137-year-long history of the Indian National Congress. The first, S. Nijalingappa, had the glorious distinction of expelling Indira Gandhi, then a serving prime minister, from the party in November 1969. A rare instance in any parliamentary democracy of a serving head of the government being expelled from their own party. Fifty-three years later, another Kannadiga has arrived with full blessings of Indira’s descendants. With the party perhaps at the most critical juncture in its history, Mallikarjun Kharge stands in clear contrast to both Nijalingappa and his immediate predecessors, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.
While the Gandhis inherited India’s oldest party as a family legacy, Kharge, a Buddhist Dalit, began his journey as the son of a daily wager. If the Gandhis were surrounded by a coterie, Kharge has his ears firmly on the ground. Speaking to Outlook, former Congress minister from Maharashtra and Dharavi MLA Varsha Gaikwad recalls a 2019 incident when she was in Madhya Pradesh as the state in-charge. One day, Kharge chastised her in immaculate Marathi. “Varsha, do you know what is most important? You need to strengthen your base. If you leave your own base (Maharashtra) and work elsewhere, you won’t survive in politics.” Gaikwad was then completing her third consecutive term as an MLA. She says, “I immediately realised my mistake. Such advice only a father could give to her daughter. I won the 2019 elections only because of him.”
Politics for Kharge, his friends recall, is essentially a medium to connect with people. With the party facing elections in nearly a dozen states before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, what can the 80-year-old leader offer to the party that now rules just two states in the country?
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At first, he is a non-threatening leader unlikely to cause discomfort to his colleagues, let alone to the Gandhis. He has a stunning track record of winning 11 consecutive elections, nine assembly and then two Lok Sabha, from Gulbarga, before he lost the 2019 parliamentary election to former Congress MLA Umesh Jadhav who had joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) months before the polls.
Karnataka Congress leaders point out that any nine-term legislator, who also served as a minister at both the Centre and the state, would fancy the chief minister’s seat, but Kharge would never allow himself to be carried away by such an ambition. “Dissident campaigns are generally created and led by the No. 2. Karnataka has had a tradition of deputy chief ministers. But Kharge never entered into a tussle to become the deputy CM,” Karnataka leader Mohan Kumar Kondajji tells Outlook.
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Kharge narrowly missed several opportunities to become chief minister when leaders like N. Dharam Singh and Siddaramaiah were chosen over him. “But he never created any problem for anyone, never tried to mobilise people against the CM,” says Kondajji, who has long closely worked with Kharge. “Even a young boy like Sachin Pilot wants to be the CM, but Kharge never went to Delhi or displayed his clout,” corroborates another Congress leader.
Clearly, Kharge would never be a Sitaram Kesri, who was unceremoniously removed from his presidency by Sonia loyalists, or a P.V. Narasimha Rao, who placed her under the surveillance of the Intelligence Bureau. One can call Kharge a “status quo” president, to quote Shashi Tharoor, but his traits ensured that the dissidents in the party softened their stand after his election. In October, with Ashok Gehlot openly defying the high command and Tharoor sharpening his attack, the party seemed to be headed towards anarchy. But everyone seems to have accepted Kharge, at least for the time being. “It has been a seamless transition of power. The Congress workers are showing faith in his leadership,” Ruchir Garg, media advisor to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, tells Outlook.
Second, Kharge is an organisation man who, his colleagues say, has a “personal connection with grassroots workers and receives direct information”. A polyglot, he addresses Maharashtra’s residents in Marathi and switches to Kannada in Gulbarga. Before the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Kharge came to Mumbai as the party observer. Gaikwad approached him, seeking a ticket for her father Eknath Gaikwad who in his debut in Lok Sabha elections had defeated former Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi from Mumbai North Central in 2004. Gaikwad recalls Kharge as politely telling her, “You don’t need to come here. Go and work to gain maximum lead in the constituency. Don’t waste time.” She adds, “I was then just a 26–27 year girl. It was a big lesson he taught me.”
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Third, party leaders say that his election will help the Congress in the forthcoming assembly elections in Karnataka. People in Karnataka fondly remember him. “Kharge has done a lot for Gulbarga. He brought a central university, new trains and an airport to the district,” says Vikram Visaji, who teaches Kannada literature at the Central University of Karnataka, Gulbarga.
Speaking to Outlook, Karnataka state Congress working president Eshwar Khandre recalls that one of the biggest contributions of Kharge to the state is Article 371-J under which a separate board was set up for the development of the Hyderabad–Karnataka region. There had been a long-standing demand for a special status to the backward region. However, successive Union governments chose to give the popular demand a go by. Kharge took it upon himself when he became a Union minister and even brought opposition leaders on board. Khandre says, “Now we are getting additional funds and medical seats.”
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Fourth, Kharge can also bring disparate parties, which are reluctant to accept the Gandhis, under an umbrella and help forge opposition unity ahead of the 2024 general elections. “Because of his experience and seniority, opposition leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar may agree to his leadership,” says Kondajji. He is not as astute or acceptable across the spectrum as Pranab Mukherjee was but may play a similar role. More than anything else, Gaikwad says, his election has given every small Congress worker hope that anyone can reach the highest level.
But all of this could be wishful thinking if he remains a ceremonial head. Several senior Congress leaders reject the perception, though. “He is not a rubber stamp. The BJP–RSS are trying to sabotage his image. There is a clear demarcation in the party. Rahul ji will run the campaign, Kharge ji will manage the organisation,” says Gaikwad. Drawing a parallel with the BJP, she asks, “What is the role of J.P. Nadda ji in the BJP?” She, then, goes on in the same vein, “He manages the organisation, while Modi ji runs the campaign.”
Some party leaders also recall an incident when, hours after taking charge as the Congress president in October, Kharge held a meeting of the Congress central election committee for Gujarat polls at the party’s Akbar Road headquarters in Delhi. So far, the committee meetings were usually held at Sonia Gandhi’s residence. But she came to attend the meeting under Kharge’s chairmanship. Rahul Gandhi also took a break from ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ to attend Kharge’s appointment ceremony. The Congress leaders also point out that it was Kharge who delivered the Nehru Memorial Lecture on November 14 at Jawahar Bhavan.
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However, it also can be mere optics. Sonia or Rahul may not want to portray Kharge in a diminishing light so soon. The real change can be seen only in the long run or in trying situations. If there is a tussle between two leaders in any state, for instance, will Kharge be the final arbiter? Will warring factions approach him or will 10 Janpath hold the court?
Over the decades, the Congress leaders have developed a culture of resigning to the Gandhis, who had the final word even over a low-level appointment. Unless it changes, Kharge may not introduce any organisational reforms and his election may only be a ruse to deflect attacks on the first family. If the party wins the Himachal Pradesh elections, Rahul and his yatra will get the credit, irrespective of the fact that he was several thousand kilometres away from those hills. But if the party loses, Kharge will be the lone accused.
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Notably, the task force for the 2024 general elections was formed before Kharge took charge. Similarly, Brijlal Khabri was appointed as the Uttar Pradesh unit chief in October, raising questions about the urgency to have a major appointment when the presidential elections of the party were on. His first challenge will be the Congress Working Committee (CWC) elections to be held early next year. The composition of the CWC, whether they are still all Gandhi loyalists or not, will decide Kharge’s sway over the party. When Sonia became president after overthrowing Kesri in 1998, the CWC was packed with her loyalists.
Second, the prospects of gaining Dalit votes through Kharge are bleak. The party had made similar claims for Charanjit Singh Channi, who drew a zilch in Punjab. The BJP has won over the Dalits with a slew of measures, both political and economic. The Congress cannot counter it by using a Dalit mascot, whom few in the Hindi heartland recognise.
Third, he also has to deliberate on how to bring the Congress closer to the middle space that it had been known for or continue with the leftward shift the party has taken in the last two decades under the Gandhis. Kharge is a scholar of Buddhist philosophy. He built one of South Asia’s largest Buddha Vihar in Gulbarga and also brought Pali and Prakrit study centres to the town.
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And then there is a personal challenge. Every Congress leader Outlook spoke to said that being a son of the soil, he has more patience and is a better negotiator. However, his recent past indicates otherwise. He has been the party’s observer for several states. He was sent to resolve the factionalism in Punjab last year and in Rajasthan during the presidential elections. He failed in both states, with Gehlot and his MLAs openly rebelling against the high command. While the party badly lost Punjab, it is still facing infighting in Rajasthan. On November 16, the Rajasthan party in-charge Ajay Maken resigned, in a first test to Kharge’s leadership.
Amid all this, ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ comes as a shot in Kharge’s arm. It may not be a coincidence that the party elected a new president when Rahul Gandhi was on the biggest mission of his political career. According to a Cvoter survey, Rahul Gandhi’s popularity ratings have increased in the southern states he has covered so far. Though it may not immediately translate into votes, the party has found support from many quarters of civil society, with several activists, celebrities and film stars joining the yatra. One such celebrity is actor Sushant Singh, who joined the yatra on November 10 in Nanded. Speaking to Outlook, he candidly admitted that he was “initially apprehensive about the crowd” he saw on social media. “We know that parties bring large crowds in buses. But when I went there, I saw people on both sides of the road. A fake crowd couldn’t have such passion. I could see in their eyes that they want a change,” he said.
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Singh also attended a public rally by the Congress that evening. “When I was called to the stage, with Kharge Sahib and Rahul in attendance, I recalled that my friend Inderjeet Barak had tweeted a verse by Hindi poet Kunwar Narain earlier in the day,” he said. The verse read:
Jab tum apne mastak par barf ka pahla toofan jheloge
Aur kaampoge nahin
Tab tum paoge ki koi farq nahin
Sab kuch jit lene men
Aur ant tak himmat na haarne men.
(When you remain undaunted before a snow storm
You learn that there is no difference
Between conquering everything
And not losing courage till the end.)”
The verse had been echoing in him throughout the yatra. He recited the poem before the gathering, to a great applause. But the dawn Congress needs is many verses and storms ahead.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Not Their Man, Really?")