New Delhi: Barely a month into his tenure as president of the Indian National Congress (INC), the otherwise low-profile Mallikarjun Kharge is taking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) head-on. The octogenarian is also slowly building his brand as a leader from a disadvantaged background who rose through the ranks to hold the reins of a national party — an identity Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assiduously cultivated for himself since 2013.
On 28 November, speaking at a campaign rally in Gujarat’s Dediapada, Kharge — referring to Modi’s angst against the Congress for ‘targeting him personally’ — thundered: “I am also poor…poorer than poor, untouchable. At least somebody drank your tea. Nobody drinks my tea even. And then you say ooh I am poor, they asked me what my stature (haisiyat) is. If you try to garner sympathy like this, it will not work. People are not fools.”
Kharge was alluding to Modi’s oft-repeated reminiscing about his boyhood days as a tea seller.
On Monday, Kharge took another swipe at Modi, questioning why the Prime Minister is the BJP’s face in every election, be it parliamentary, assembly or municipal. How many faces does he (Modi) have, Kharge asked, adding, “Is he like Ravan?”
For much of Tuesday, the Congress and BJP traded barbs over Kharge’s remarks and criticism of him for targeting Modi.
BJP’s Amit Malviya wrote on Twitter: “Unable to take the heat of Gujarat election, pushed to the fringe, Congress national president Mallikarjun Kharge loses control over his words, calls Prime Minister Narendra Modi “Ravan”. From “Maut ka Saudagar” to “Ravan”, Congress continues to insult Gujarat and it’s son…”
Recurring theme in Kharge’s speeches
Throughout his political career of 56 years, Kharge has rarely, if ever, brandished his caste. But at the helm of the Congress — whose leaders have been at the receiving end of barbs for their “privileged” upbringing these last eight years — Kharge’s humble roots are an asset he and his party are clearly not coy about invoking when the need arises.
Another recurrent theme in Kharge’s speeches is his rise from humble beginnings to the forefront of the Congress, in his home state of Karnataka and later as leader of the opposition, first in the Lok Sabha and then in the Rajya Sabha. He had stepped down as LoP in the Upper House when he put his hat in the ring to become Congress president, by the party’s “one-man, one-post” credo.
Shedding light on his electoral record, Kharge, while speaking at another public meeting in Gujarat’s Bapunagar on 27 November, had told the crowd: “I have been in politics for 56 years and 51 of those years, I have been MLA, MP, Rajya Sabha member from the Congress party. You never gave me a day off. You kept electing me. I won 11 of 12 elections.
“One election, when the prime minister, home minister and all ministers attacked my fort and played their game to defeat me. It is okay. This happens in democracy.”
Kharge had also referenced his political ascent in his first rally in poll-bound Himachal Pradesh’s Banuti on 9 November. Apologising for his ‘southern origin’ Hindi, he said he spoke the Hindustani of Pandit Nehru and not the colloquial Hindi.
“I am standing here because Sonia, Rahul, other senior leaders and 9,000 delegates elected me. You just heard about the duration of the election etc… How was Nadda elected? Nobody knows. It is not an election there but a nomination and they question us about democracy. I was LoP in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha,” Kharge said.
Elections to Himachal Pradesh’s 68-member Legislative Assembly were held in a single phase on 12 November with counting votes slated for 8 December.
Questioning Nadda’s election as BJP chief on his home turf, it seems, was just the beginning. Attacks on PM Modi — not always issue-based, like the Ravan barb — are a common theme throughout Kharge’s speeches.
In Bapunagar, he had asked the crowd whether Modi was planning to return as chief minister of Gujarat, given the frequency of his trips to the poll-bound state where the BJP has held on to power since 1997.
In Dediapada, he called Modi “jhoothon ka sardar (leader of liars)” before touching on issues like unemployment. “There are 5 lakh vacancies… Now that elections are here, Modi sahab is distributing certificates. Arrey! That is the work of a clerk, it is the departmental clerk who gives appointment letters. You (Modi) are doing his job,” Kharge said, mincing no words.
In Mehsana, responding to Modi’s barb about him being the target of “two-kilo abuse” each day, Kharge said: “We in the Congress are getting four quintals of abuse every day. But we are not scared. This country was not scared of the British and it will not be scared of you.”
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)