Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge has been backed for the Prime Ministerial candidate by two of the most mercurial leaders of the INDIA bloc: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The two leaders proposed Kharge’s name as the Opposition bloc’s Prime Ministerial face during the alliance’s meeting in Delhi on December 19. According to sources, Kharge replied to the suggestion saying, “I work for the downtrodden. Let’s win first, then we will see. I don’t seek anything.” He repeated the same when asked about it in the press meet after the alliance meeting.
Kharge was elected the Congress party’s president in October 2022. A Navayana Buddhist hailing from the Holeya Scheduled Caste, he has been with the Congress since 1969, serving as a minister in several Karnataka cabinets. He was the MLA from the Gurmitkal Assembly constituency in Yadgir district of Karnataka from 1972 to 2008. In this profile of Kharge, TNM’s Pooja Prasanna wrote that he earned the title ‘solillada sardara’, meaning someone who does not know defeat.
Despite his unbroken record, it rankles his supporters, particularly Dalits in the state, that he was overlooked for the top post of Chief Minister on more than one occasion. His political career is symptomatic of a larger political trend in Karnataka where leaders from socially weaker sections have lost out.
When the Congress proposed his name for opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha in 2019, many critics said that he was being made the scapegoat for the party’s failure. The Congress had failed to get the minimum 10% of seats in the lower house to claim the Opposition leader post. Despite what the critics said, Kharge remained stoic in his support of the party line and never acknowledged the critics.
The complexion of his leadership and the party leadership’s attitude appears completely transformed in the last year. Kharge’s influence over the party line is more pronounced than ever. The Congress’ tough stand on the caste census, for instance, is seen as a sign of his writ over the party, which once stalled the issue when it had the power.
A TMC leader told TNM that Mamata Banerjee felt that a Dalit leader of Kharge’s stature would be the best challenge to Narendra Modi. A question that the opposition often encounters is who their PM face is, and this endorsement, opposition leaders believe, will go a long way in countering the BJP’s drumbeating about Narendra Modi’s OBC background.
This is also perhaps a veiled message to BSP supremo Mayawati, who is often seen by Ambedkarite Dalits as their sole representative. Kharge’s rise on the national scene coincides with a new wave in Dalit politics since the Rohith Vemula movement of 2016. Alongside Kharge’s rise in the Congress, other leaders have appeared on the national horizon such as Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra, Thol Thirumavalavan in Tamil Nadu, and RS Praveen Kumar in Telangana. Their support to the INDIA bloc is far from guaranteed and it will be interesting to see their reaction in the event of a call for Kharge for PM.