In the run up to the Congress elections, pitted against a more articulate Shashi Tharoor who has called himself a candidate of change, a large section of the media had reduced a more subdued Kharge to just a Gandhi family proxy.

Congress president Mallikarjuna KhargeMallikarjuna Kharge/PTI
news Politics Wednesday, October 19, 2022 - 14:28

Mallikarjuna Kharge’s victory in the Congress presidential polls comes as no surprise. Much before the polling, Kharge had received the support of scores of party leaders who had vociferously supported him against his rival, Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor. Over the last two decades, Kharge has come to be known as the Gandhi family’s most trusted lieutenant. But beyond this, in his political career spanning over 50 years, Kharge has shown tremendous versatility in the roles he has performed. 

In the run up to the Congress elections, pitted against a more articulate Shashi Tharoor who has called himself a candidate of change, a large section of the media had reduced a more subdued Kharge to just a Gandhi family proxy. But there is a lot that Kharge brings to the table that could help the Congress stabilise the party that is in deep electoral trouble. 

Early years and start of his political career

Kharge began his political journey when he was studying at the Government College in Gulbarga. He had been involved in student politics for a few years before he stood for elections himself. HT Pothe, the director of Pali and Buddhist Studies Centre and Kharge’s biographer, says Kharge had helped many of his friends win elections in college.

Pothe says that when Kharge was in his second year, he stood for the post of General Secretary of the students' body and won. This was his first election and his political career had begun.

He then studied law and worked under Justice Shivraj Patil (who later became a Supreme Court judge). “He mostly took up cases related to labour issues. When he was growing up, there were many of his father’s colleagues from MSK Mill who would visit their house and he was influenced by the issues the labourers faced. Even when he was practising law, he helped labourers against their employers,” says a family friend from Kalburgi. 

“He was involved with the Republican Party of India (RPI) then after a few years, in 1967, he joined the Congress. He won his first Assembly elections in 1972,” Pothe adds. 

Those known to the Kharge family say that his politics was deeply influenced by his earlier days. His family was based in Bidar, a district bordered by Maharashtra on one side and Telangana on the other (although at the time, it was part of unified Andhra Pradesh). 

“Before Independence, Kharge’s father Mapanna left Bidar and went to work in a field. At that time, there were communal tensions in the area and the family thought it was safer to move to Kalburgi (then known as Gulbarga),” Pothe narrates. 

The biographer says that Mapanna worked for over a month at a field but when he asked his employer for his salary, he was refused. At a very young age, Mallikarajuna Kharge had reportedly been deeply influenced by this. The family then moved to a Scheduled Caste colony and lived there for some time. His father worked in Gulbarga’s MSK Mill. 

‘Solillada sardara’: A leader undefeated in 10 elections

Kharge managed to hold the Assembly constituency of Gurmitkal from 1972 to 2008 and earned the title, ‘solillada sardara’, meaning someone who does not know defeat. “When he was asked to contest from Gurmitkal, he did so reluctantly. Mostly because it was a constituency dominated by Lingayats. But he managed to win handsomely and was an MLA for nine consecutive terms,” says Sivanandan TV, a journalist who has worked in Kalburgi for over three decades.

The Hyderabad-Karnataka region is a very backward region but Kharge’s Gurmitkal was one of the few places where there were at least two to three sources of water in every village and water connection to most of the houses, Sivanandan adds. The journalist says that Kharge brought down animosity between Lingayats and Dalits in Gurmitkal. 

Almost Chief Minister thrice

During his time in Karnataka politics, he was made a Cabinet Minister several times, under several Chief Ministers. When he was appointed as the Home Minister under the Chief Ministership of SM Krishna, he faced some of the toughest challenges — from the kidnapping of veteran Kannada actor Dr Rajkumar by sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, to riots between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu due to Cauvery river water sharing issue. 

While he held several important portfolios, he missed out the Chief Ministership three times, despite being a serious contender. A lot has been said about how he had been overlooked by subsequent Congress high commands but the political circumstances each time were not in favour of Kharge. A senior journalist says in 2013, one of Kharge’s rivals for the post of Chief Ministership of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, was calling up several MLAs, seeking their support ahead of the Congress Legislative Party meeting. The journalist says Kharge did not do this and possibly why he missed out. “It was not a case of Congress high command choosing Siddaramaiah over Kharge,” the journalist adds.

The Assembly elections in 2004 resulted in a hung Assembly, with BJP emerging as the single largest party with 79 seats but well short of a simple majority. The Congress with 65 seats and the JD(S) with 58 seats came together to form the government. Kharge was a front runner but Dharam Singh, another senior leader from the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, was HD Devegowda’s choice. 

“HD Devegowda wanted a more pliable CM and found him more suited to be a coalition CM. Someone like Kharge would have been difficult to push around,” a veteran journalist who covered the episode says.  

In 1999, the first time Kharge was overlooked for the post, SM Krishna who was made the CM, was the high command’s choice. “He was known to be very close to the Gandhis, especially Rahul Gandhi to whom he was almost like a mentor,” an insider says. 

Political analyst Narendra Pani says that each time he missed out on being the Chief Minister, it was because of this consensus building ability. “He did not take the effort to build a mass image. It is not his politics to throw tantrums. He is a Dalit leader from a Lingayat-dominant constutuency and that tells us about his abilty to take everyone along,” Pani says. 

Personal ideology – Buddhist, secular, Ambedkarite

Kharge is a practising Buddhist and an Ambedkarite who has been vocal in criticising the caste hierarchy in Hinduism. He had founded the Siddharth Vihar Trust in Gulbarga and built the Buddha Vihar. 

Political scientist Sandeep Shastri says that throughout his career of almost six decades, Kharge has always stood by the ideology of the Congress party. “That has been an unflinching feature of his political career. His commitment to the Dalit community throughout his career has been visible and witnessed. However, as he emerged as a state and national level leader, he realised he needed to strike consensus between caste groups. That is why in northern Karnataka, he has a high level of credibility among all castes,” Shastri says. “Even without sacrificing his commitment to the Dalit community, he has managed to take everyone along. In that sense, he has been more inclusive than exclusive,” he adds. 

In the earlier days of his career, when Kharge was made the state Cabinet Minister for Primary Education, he had ensured that over 15,000 vacancies of teachers from the SC and ST communities were filled and also gave grants to schools run by SC and ST communities. 

Policies as labour minister 

Labour rights have been a cornerstone in Kharge’s career because of his experiences as a child growing up around mill workers in Gulbarga. Even as a Union Minister, he was particularly invested in issues pertaining to labour rights and their infringement. “When he was a minister in Dr Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet, very silently, he led some of the labour reforms introduced by the UPA government,” says Sandeep Shastri, “The reforms he brought in with regard to the insurance cover for labourers and the benefits he brought to labourers were important.”

Gandhi family loyalist

Kharge’s staunch devotion to the Gandhi family is certainly not new. When the party split in 1969, the then new entrant, Kharge had chosen to be in Indira Gandhi’s Congress(I). Narendra Pani, political analyst, says this is because Kharge is a consensus builder and since the consensus in Karnataka then was in favour of Indira Gandhi, he too went with it. The only time he was away from the party and the Gandhi family was for the brief period he went with Devaraj Urs in 1978. 

The loyalty to the family continued after Sonia Gandhi took over the party. In 1999, when SM Krishna was made CM instead of Kharge, he was given the Home portfolio. “I remember several of his close friends had urged him to take it up with Sonia Gandhi,” says a Congress leader, "at least to make his displeasure known, but Kharge said it was against his discipline to question the high command. Almost 10 years later, when he was asked to move to Delhi, to surreptitiously clear the deck for Siddaramaiah, he did not rebel. He did not ask for his dues to be paid,” the leader adds.

Consensus builder, not flamboyant

Kharge is a man of many interests but has always managed to maintain a low profile. As a student, he was a state level hockey player and also played kabaddi and football. “But unlike a few of his other contemporaries, in public life, he never drew much attention to his other interests,” says a senior Kannada journalist. “Kharge always thought his work should speak for itself,” the journalist says. The fact that he can speak multiple languages including Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, English, Marathi has helped him grow in national politics while many of his colleagues from the south remained restricted to their regions, the journalist adds. 

Sandeep Shastri says there is no flamboyance in Kharge’s political style, he works silently on the ground. “That would stand him in good stead in the new role he is taking up because this position requires a delicate balancing between various forces and factors – with the Gandhi family at one level and the different regional satraps who are important in their own states at another. And his record in the past perhaps qualifies him to do this,” he adds. 

Narendra Pani says he has an incredible ability to build coalitions. “He can bring people together and this will be his greatest attribute as Congress president." 

TV Sivanandan too alludes to his patience and discipline. “He has not embroiled himself in any controversy or corruption scams. Whenever he was denied a position, he never created a ruckus. He waited patiently for his turn after,” he recalls. 

Rajeev Gowda, a Congress leader who has known Kharge for over 30 years says that though he was overlooked for the post of Chief Minister, he never rocked the boat. “He honoured the leadership’s decision instead of becoming a destabilising dissenter,” he says.

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