New Delhi: Half a century after Jagjivan Ram held the post, the Congress could finally have another Dalit president. At the age of 80, Mallikarjun Kharge starts as a heavyweight in perhaps the biggest electoral fight of his life.
On Friday, Kharge filed his nomination along with his colleagues Shashi Tharoor and K. N. Tripathi for the 17 October high-profile election. The nine-time MLA and two-time Lok Sabha MP later said he was fighting for a “big change” in the party.
Having started off as a student union leader, followed by a stint in labour politics, Kharge saw his stock rise steadily in Karnataka politics. Even though he was recognised as a grassroots leader and kept winning poll after poll, he saw S. M. Krishna, N. Dharam Singh and Siddaramaiah being chosen over him as chief minister.
First, Krishna became the CM in 1999. Then when the Congress did not muster enough numbers in 2004, the party formed an alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular). Dharam Singh was chosen for the top post. Kharge was said to be upset but quietly accepted the party’s decision. In 2009, he was sent to Delhi to make way for Siddaramaiah. He again accepted the decision quietly.
Perhaps this is why several Congress leaders vouch for his unwavering loyalty to the party. “He started out his political career with the Congress and has remained incredibly loyal to the organisation all these years. The party has also recognised his efforts,” said Rajeev Gowda, Congress spokesperson and former MP from Karnataka.
A lawyer by education, Kharge was born to a Dalit couple at Varavatti in 1942. After joining the Congress in 1969, Kharge entered the Karnataka assembly in 1972 after winning from Gurmitkal constituency. He remained an MLA till 2009.
He entered the Lok Sabha that year and went on to first serve as labour minister and then took over the charge of railways and social justice and empowerment in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
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Gandhi family loyalist
“No one can weaken Congress or Sonia Gandhi,” Kharge had said in March when a dissenting Kapil Sibal demanded that the Gandhis should move away from the helm on their own.
None were surprised by the statement. In February last year, the Gandhi loyalist had credited his “loyalty and commitment” after he replaced Ghulam Nabi Azad as Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
“He is a very strong contender for the post of the Congress president for his administrative capacity as well as his political experience. Except for the last election, he has had an excellent track record of winning elections and has worked with so many senior Congress leaders in the past,” said Dinesh Gundu Rao, senior Congress leader and son of former Karnataka chief minister R. Gundu Rao.
Kharge’s electoral track record backs his image of a grassroots leader. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress veteran won from Gulbarga despite a massive Modi wave in the country.
It was in 2019 that Kharge suffered his first electoral defeat when he lost to BJP candidate Umesh Jadhav. The party, however, compensated him by sending him to the Rajya Sabha in 2020.
“I closely worked with him when he became the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha. As head of the Congress research department, my job was to support him and our MPs. What struck me about his working style is that even at his age, he is incredibly hard-working, very focused and knowledgeable,” Rajiv Gowda told ThePrint. “He is very quickly able to get to the political dimensions of issues in a sharp manner. He is very impressive in terms of his work ethics.”
A follower of Buddhism, Kharge has often professed his admiration for social reformer B. R. Ambedkar. The Congress leader prefers not to be identified by his Dalit background. “I am a Dalit. That is true. But, I have reached here because of my calibre and hard work. Every caste and religion has supported me. Call me a Congress leader, people’s leader. Not just a Dalit leader,” he has been quoted as saying.
Gowda, too, vouched for the secular credentials of the veteran leader. “One thing that also makes him stand out is his commitment to social justice. He is a practicing Buddhist, staunchly secular and rejects caste and discrimination.”
People may not be aware of his qualities, but Kharge commands great respect across party lines, Gundu Rao said.
“He is ideologically very sound and a learned man. He always keeps reading. People don’t know many of his qualities since he does not promote himself much or does any cheap tactics for recognition. From the party’s side as well, he did not have any lack of recognition and the party has given him every position for his capabilities. But it’s true that his national exposure, except for the past 10 years, has been less,” the Congress leader told ThePrint.
Though Kharge comes from a Scheduled Caste community, Rao said, the veteran never takes “advantage” of his background. “Even in Parliament, he sits through entire sessions. And, when he speaks, he is heard [by all] and commands great respect across party lines.”
(Edited by Tony Rai)
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