Who is Kharge? Man of principles and a quintessential Congressman

Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge. File Photo: PTI

Parliament Street in Delhi witnessed a fiery protest on July 21, 2022. Leading the protest was M Mallikarjun Kharge, who turned 80 that day.

Kharge had then set aside all birthday celebrations to organise and lead the protest against the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central government for summoning Sonia Gandhi, the interim president of the Indian National Congress, for questioning in the National Herald case.

The party high command, and the Gandhis in particular, took note of the protest led by the octogenarian leader. Kharge had managed to bring together party leaders and workers to question the ED's move to summon Sonia.

Perhaps, the prowess Kharge displayed -- even at the age of 80 -- might have brought him so close to the office of the Congress president. His uncompromising attitude and adroitness have given rise to hope that he could rejuvenate the Congress.

Kharge's life is a lesson in struggle and politics. At least Ashok Ghelot and Sachin Pilot could learn a lesson or two from his more than half-a-century political life as a Congress leader, administrator and people's representative.

With a few more days to go for the election to the Congress's top post, Kharge seems to have the confidence of a majority of Congress leaders. Not one to chase positions -- whether in the party or government -- the top post in the 137-year-old organisation seems to be within the reach of the 80-year-old leader.

Kharge had almost become the chief minister of Karnataka three times, an opportunity he never had. Each time he missed the opportunity, this quintessential Congressman remained nonchalant, without raising the banner of revolt or voicing his disappointment.

All these qualities have now made Kharge a candidate in the Congress presidential poll. With several Pradesh Congress Committees, including the KPCC, pledging support to him, his elevation to the top party post seems certain. Additionally, he has the backing of the party leadership.

Sonia Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge
Sonia Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge. File photo

Man of principles

Kabaddi, which demands physical stamina, power and agility, is a major sport in RSS shakhas across the country. Kharge displayed the same qualities that of a kabbadi player in Congress to rise among the ranks. A strong critic of the RSS, Kharge was a well-known kabaddi, football and hockey player during his student days.

Considered to be BJP's strong opponent, Kharge has a clean image in Karnataka politics. Born in a Dalit family, he supported himself to learn law, and emerged as a Congress leader with little backing. After dabbling in Government College union activities in Kalaburagi (previously known as Gulbarga), Kharge became active in the Congress through his work among labourers.

Kharge, who specialised in labour laws as an advocate, became the president of the Kalaburagi Town Congress Committee at the age of 27 in 1969. Since then, he has been an integral part of Karnataka politics, and the prominent Dalit leader in Congress.

He stood by the Indira faction when the Congress headed for a split in 1969. But when the party split in 1978, he joined hands with his political guru Devaraj Urs for a few months -- the only time Kharge stayed away from the Congress. Barring this brief period, Kharge has always remained loyal to the party's national leadership, though several of his close friends and party colleagues left the Congress for newer pastures.

Mallikarjun Kharge. File photo
Mallikarjun Kharge. File photo

Slip between the cup and lip

Kharge came close to becoming the chief minister of Karnataka three times. He, however, had to step aside to make way for others at the last moment. His loyalty to the national leadership was such that he made no voice of disappointment or dissent each time he had to make way for others to become the chief minister.

He was first considered for the post of chief minister in 1999, but the opportunity went to S M Krishna, who is now with the BJP. Kharge's name once again made the rounds when the Congress came to power with the backing of Janata Dal in 2004. The leadership, however, made Kharge's friend and the then PCC president N Dharam Singh the chief minister. He joined the Dharam Singh  cabinet as an obedient party worker.

Kharge was soon made the PCC president in 2005, but suffered a backlash in the 2008 Assembly election. The BJP won 110 of the 224 seats and assumed power in a south Indian state without outside support. Though Congress had then increased its tally to 80 from 65 seats, it fell far behind the BJP.

By the time the Congress won almost half of the Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka in 2009, V R Deshpande had become the PCC chief. When Congress reclaimed the state in the 2013 Assembly election, Kharge was the first choice as its chief minister. The party, however, instead of making Kharge the chief minister, gave that opportunity to Siddharamaiah, who had joined the Congress from Janata Dal. Kharge was then a central minister.

Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge pays homage to Mahatma Gandhi on the occasion of his birth anniversary, at Rajghat in New Delhi, Sunday. Photo: PTI/Atul Yadav

Leader in the House

Kharge became prominent in national politics after his win to the Lok Sabha from Gulbarga in 2009. He was drafted into the second United Progressive Alliance government as its Minister for Labour. His pro-worker stand, and reforms he brought in for the benefit of labourers shot him into prominence.

The Congress faced its worst electoral defeat in 2014. The party's search for a party leader in the Lok Sabha ended in Kharge. Congress, with merely 44 members, was not even the leading opposition party. Sonia and Rahul refused to be the party leader. The national leadership preferred Kharge as the leader to other successful candidates, Kamalnath, Ashok Chavan, M Veerappa Moily and Amarinder.

Kharge led the Congress from the front in the Lok Sabha. He often challenged the BJP, which had a brutal majority, and Narendra Modi. The government often found itself on the defensive, when Kharge confronted it with law points and rules.

But the people's mandate went against Kharge in the next election. He also fell -- for the first time in Gulbarga -- as a BJP wave swept across Karnataka in 2019. Congress which once again lost the post of the Opposition leader, lost Kharge as well.

But Sonia decided to bring him to the Rajya Sabha, and made him the party's leader. Though the Congress has only 31 members in the Upper House, Kharge has been keeping the party in the reckoning with his interventions in the Rajya Sabha.

A section of leaders in the Congress believe that Kharge becoming the AICC president would benefit the party. They feel he could win the support of Dalits. His elevation could also have an impact in Karnataka, where Assembly elections would be held next year.

Second Dalit president

If elected, Kharge will be AICC's second Dalit president after Jagjivan Ram, who became the president after the party's 1969 split. Indira Gandhi made him the president in a deft move even as other leaders had left the party. Ram later spearheaded Indira's battle against the former party leaders.

Jagjivan Ram continued as the party president till 1974, but distanced from Indira after the promulgation of internal Emergency in 1975. He left the party in 1977 to form Congress for Democracy. He was instrumental in ousting Indira from power, and replacing the Congress with Janata Party.

Kharge will also be the second AICC president from Karnataka. S Nijalingappa was elected the president in 1968. His relation with Indira was not smooth, and he along with Morarji Desai, Ravindra Varma and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy left the party and floated a new organisation.

Initially known as Nijalingappa Congress, the outfit later came to be known as Organisational Congress. Indira hit back by making a Dalit, Ram, as the president. She proved her mettle in 1971 by routing the split-away Congress in the 1971 election.

Invincible Kharge

Kharge was considered invincible in Karnataka politics, thanks to his success in all 11 elections he had contested between 1972 and 2014. He tasted defeat for the first time in his third contest to the Lok Sabha from Gulbarga in 2019, when BJP captured 25 out of the 28 Parliament seats in Karnataka.

Kharge first won the first election to the State Assembly from Gurmitkal in 1972, a win he kept repeating in the next eight elections. Shifted to Chittapur in 2008, he continued his winning streak, which he retained in the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Gulbarga. In 2019, however, he too was swept away in the BJP wave.

He also holds the rare distinction of being a minister in Karnataka whenever the Congress rode to power since 1980.

This week 70 years ago, father of Indian Constitution Ambedkar visited Kerala
BR Ambedkar

Follower of Buddha, Ambedkar

Kharge's was a loud and clear voice against the caste system and Sangh Parivar. He never kept it a secret that he is a follower of Buddha, and sympathetic to Ambedkar's philosophy. Even while contesting from constituencies reserved for backward classes, he displaced a secular outlook that fought the system that discriminated against people based on their caste.

Mapanna Mallikarjun Kharge was born on July 21, 1942, in a Dalit family that had migrated to Gulbarga from Varawatti, Bhalki Taluk in erstwhile Hyderabad state's Bidar. The family was forced to migrate following communal riots.

Kharge is married to Radhabhai, and the couple has five children: Priyank, Rahul, Milind, Priyadarshini and Jayashri. Priyank, a former minister, is currently an MLA in Karnataka.

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