The appointment on Monday of the low-key 71-year-old Karnataka leader Mallikarjuna Kharge as the Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha sent out a clear message to the stunned party faithful: party vice president Rahul Gandhi, the face of the Congress, is unwilling to take on the responsibility of leading the party from the front, especially at a time when it is down and out.

A former union minister told The Hindu, “What else can one read in such a choice? Mr Kharge may be an excellent Congressman, a senior dalit leader who has never lost an election in his life, fluent in Hindi, Urdu and English, but he is not the face of new India.”

Echoing the same sentiment, a senior party functionary said, “The LoP should have been either Congress president Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi, since they are the leaders of the party. It sends out a confused message.”

Mr Kharge who held the labour and then the railway portfolios in the UPA Two government, has also edged out two senior MPs who were in the race, former parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath (67) –the seniormost MP in the 16th Lok Sabha with 31 years and two months in the house – and former petroleum minister M Veerappa Moily (74). He now has the onerous task of leading a depleted 44 MP strong contingent after the Congress faced its worst ever parliamentary defeat.

Congress sources said Mr Kharge, a second term MP from Karnakata’s Gulbarga, was selected LoP by Ms Gandhi, who had been empowered by the Congress Parliamentary Party to do so. These sources said that since she is the CPP chairperson, she did not wish to be the LoP as well, and since Mr Gandhi was unwilling to take on the post, her choice perforce fell outside the family.

In choosing Mr Kharge, party sources said, Ms Gandhi is not only projecting a dalit face at a time when the Bahujan Samaj Party is losing ground, but also rewarding Karnataka, the state that has put the largest number of MPs into the party’s kitty – nine out of 44. The state with the second highest number of Congress MPs is Kerala – eight. Finally, Mr Kharge is seen as a total Nehru-Gandhi loyalist, a signal that things are not going to change.

Before entering the Lok Sabha in 2009, Mr Kharge was elected to the Karnataka Assembly nine times and brings to his new appointment the experience of having been the LoP in the state.

Party sources added that it was also perhaps felt that the new Speaker might find it difficult to refuse the LoP status to Mr Kharge since he is a dalit: as things stand, with the Congress having won less than 10 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the party’s ability to secure the official LoP slot will depend on the discretion of the Speaker.

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