Mallikarjun Kharge has had a niggling knee pain for the last few years making him walk in an awkward shuffle. The soreness that hobbles him is an obvious fallout of the five-decade-long political marathon he has been running since he joined the Congress in 1969. On Wednesday, he was elected as the Congress president, the first non-Gandhi to lead the grand old party in 24 years. For Mr. Kharge, it is time to brace for another sprint.
Since his victory, many have already written him off as a rubber stamp of the Gandhis or a placeholder president. He will formally take over the position on October 26 and it remains to be seen whether these dismal predictions come true. But even his worst critics respect Mr. Kharge’s political stamina. His unvanquished electoral record (nine consecutive terms in the Karnataka Assembly, followed by two terms in the Lok Sabha) earned him the title ‘sol illada sardara‘ (a leader without defeat) and yet, he is not considered a pan-Karnataka mass leader. “It is the longevity of his career more than anything else that has helped him attain the positions he has held in the Congress,” said a Karnataka Congress leader, who did not wish to be named.
Mr. Kharge has had an impeccable career which remained largely unmarked by controversies. Conversely, many point out that it also means that he is deeply risk-averse, which on one hand helped him gain the Congress first family’s trust and on the other, kept the Karnataka Chief Minister’s chair out of his reach.
Mr. Kharge is an Ambedkarite Buddhist and the Congress was not his first choice. He began his political journey with the Republican Party of India. Karnataka Chief Minister D. Devaraj Urs spotted him and convinced him to join the Congress, arguing that he could make a difference if he became part of the ruling party. He joined the Congress in 1969, a critical time for the party and the country. The March 1967 general elections were the last time when polls for Parliament and the State Assemblies were held simultaneously. The Congress was voted out in nine States — Punjab, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. At the centre, it lost nearly 100 seats when its tally came down to 283.
Under S. Nijalingappa, who was the last Congress president from Karnataka, the party had split into two factions — the Congress (Requisitionists) with Indira Gandhi at its helm and the Congress (O), representing the old or the syndicate group. Indira Gandhi walked out of the party taking the larger chunk with her. For the younger lot like the then 27-year-old Kharge, who stayed with Indira’s Congress, this also meant better political prospects without the unassailable hierarchical columns of the old Congress. He has patiently risen through the ranks of the party.
Mr. Kharge first contested the Karnataka State Assembly elections in 1972 and won from Gurmitkal constituency. In 1979, his mentor Devraj Urs appointed him as Minister of State for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj. A year later when Urs was forced out of the party over differences with Indira Gandhi, Mr. Kharge lingered for a few weeks before crossing over to the Indira camp, perhaps the only minor glitch in his relationship with party’s first family. He has served as a Minister in five Cabinets led by different Chief Ministers, including Urs and his best friend Dharam Singh. Singh and Mr. Kharge together were called the ‘Gulbarga twins’ for their camaraderie.
The chair that evaded him
The enduring regret of his life, though, is that he could never fulfill his ambition to be the first Dalit Chief Minister of Karnataka, missing the post at least thrice by a whisker. In the 1994-99 Karnataka Assembly, Mr. Kharge was the Leader of Opposition, but when the Congress won the election in 1999, S.M. Krishna was chosen as Chief Minister. As a consolation prize, Mr. Kharge was made the State Home Minister. In 2004, the decision to pick the Chief Minister lay with ally Janata Dal (Secular) president H.D. Deve Gowda, who backed Dharam Singh over Mr. Kharge for the simple reason: Singh didn’t have a potential vote bank like the one Mr. Kharge could command.
As the State party president in 2008, he had a clear shot at the Chief Minister’s chair, but the party lost the elections. In 2013, when the Congress came back to power with a majority, once again, Mr. Kharge was in the running, but Siddaramaiah was made the CM. The Congress leadership mollified Mr. Kharge by giving him the Railway Ministry at the Centre.
In all these episodes, he was never seen revolting against the Gandhi family, which earned him their respect. “He never discloses his enemies. Even when he lost out the Chief Minister’s race, he never openly expressed dissatisfaction,” another Karnataka Congress leader said.
Mr. Kharge was never seen as a ‘disruptor’, something his opponent in the party presidential elections Shashi Tharoor emphasised during the campaign. Mr. Tharoor said a vote for Mr. Kharge would be a vote for status quo. Many non-Congress Opposition leaders agreed with this view.
The 2019 Lok Sabha polls is the only blot on Mr. Kharge’s unbroken record of electoral victories. He lost the Gulbarga constituency to former Congress MLA Umesh G. Jhadav, who contested on a BJP ticket, by over 95,000 votes. Mr. Kharge blamed the BJP for orchestrating his defeat since he, as the Congress floor leader between 2014 and 2019 strongly opposed the BJP. Mr. Jhadav begs to differ. “Barring Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, no high profile leader came to campaign for me,” Mr. Jhadav said. He blames “putra moh” for the debacle. In 2016, Mr. Kharge’s son Priyank Kharge was made a Minister, overlooking many contenders, including Mr. Jhadav. “It is not Mr. Kharge, it is those surrounding him who were responsible for the 2019 defeat. They put up many barriers around him, stopping people from reaching out to him,” Mr. Jhadav said.
Mr. Kharge’s journey from what he was born into, what he endured and who he became, is awe-inspiring for many. He was born in a poor family at Varavatti in Bidar district on July 21, 1942 and when he was six years old, his mother and siblings died in a fire during riots. A mill worker’s son, Mr. Kharge graduated in Law and practised for some time before taking the plunge into politics.
Mr. Kharge is also the founder-chairman of Siddharth Vihar Trust that has built the Buddha Vihar complex in Kalaburagi. Married to Radhabai since May 13, 1968, they have two daughters and three sons. According to his two-time MLA son Priyank Kharge, their father has always been a disciplinarian who brought up his children on a healthy dose of Ambedkarite-Buddhist philosophy. “He is an avid reader, with a wonderful quality of willingness to learn by himself. He doesn’t hesitate to ask questions or to concede his ignorance. He is a plain speaker, who doesn’t mince his words,” Mr. Priyank Kharge added. Mr. Kharge’s “willingness to learn” would come in handy in his new assignment as the Congress president, where both challenges and opportunities await him at a time when the party is going through a weak phase rattled by defeats, disunity and revolts.