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A Loyalist Who Never Crossed 'Lakshman Rekha': Gandhis' Blessing is Kharge's Edge Over Tharoor

By: D P Satish

Edited By: Nitya Thirumalai


Last Updated: October 01, 2022, 13:00 IST

Bengaluru, India

Senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge leaves from his residence to file his nomination papers for the post of party president, in New Delhi on September 30, 2022. (PTI Photo/Atul Yadav)

Senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge leaves from his residence to file his nomination papers for the post of party president, in New Delhi on September 30, 2022. (PTI Photo/Atul Yadav)

It’s Mallikarjun Kharge versus Shashi Tharoor in the race to replace Sonia Gandhi as Congress president. But with the backing of the party's first family, Kharge holds the advantage

In a late but the most potent entry in the contest so far, senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge filed the nomination to run for Congress president on Friday, setting up a clash of the titans against Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor.

With Digvijaya Singh beating a retreat after announcing his candidature and Ashok Gehlot extricating himself after realising it would cost him Rajasthan chief ministership, the fog is lifting off the race to replace Sonia Gandhi. It’s Kharge versus Tharoor, and the former has the edge being the pick of the Gandhis.

Kharge, a top-ranking leader in Karnataka politics, has always remained loyal to the Gandhi family, in and out of power. Such is his loyalty to the family that he named his sons Rahul and Priyank after the Gandhi siblings. His daughter is named Priyadarshini, a nod to Indira Gandhi.

Speaking to News18, Kharge’s son Rahul said: “My grandfather’s house was burnt down and my father’s mother and sister died during that time when the Razaakars went on their violent rampage. Father was not at home when it happened. Grandfather then moved from place to place with father who was then five years to escape the violence."

In 2004, when the Congress high command decided to forge an alliance with the JD(S) to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out in the state, Dharam Narayan Singh was chosen as the Chief Minister.

Kharge, who was number two in SM Krishna’s outgoing government, was naturally upset. His supporters urged him to convey his displeasure to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and not to accept the ministerial berth offered to him. But Kharge dismissed their suggestions, claiming that he never went against the party decision and he would be the last person to embarrass the Gandhi family.

In 2008, the Congress fought under Kharge’s leadership. It was his best chance to be the Karnataka CM, but the Congress lost to the BS Yediyurappa-led BJP and once again he had to sit in the Opposition.

Kharge, a Dalit leader and the son of a mill worker from the once-extremely backward Gulbarga, is a self-made man. People who have seen him since his first win in the 1972 Assembly elections, say he could rise in the party hierarchy only because of loyalty, patience, vast administrative experience and his ability to grasp any situation.

They also reveal that his loyalty towards the Gandhi family is non-negotiable.

A reserved man in private life, Kharge gets angry when people refer to him as a Dalit leader. “I am a Dalit. That is true. But, I have reached here because of my caliber and hard work. Every caste and religion has supported me. Call me a Congress leader, people’s leader. Not just a Dalit leader. I consider it an insult. I deserve something big because I am capable, not because I am Dalit,” he has said many times in the past.

When Kharge was made Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, national media merely attributed it to his caste. Some Lutyens’ Delhi mediapersons and durbaris had even mocked his elevation, treating him with disdain. But a tenacious and seasoned Kharge had proved all of them wrong by ably taking on the Modi government in the Lok Sabha, earning even the Prime Minister’s compliments for his conduct in the House. His performance had also impressed both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

A lawyer by education, a 27-year-old Kharge first entered the Karnataka Assembly in 1972. The then chief minister D Devaraj Urs was impressed by the young Scheduled Caste MLA’s abilities and made him a minister. The top leaders of Karnataka, SM Krishna, S Bangarappa, M Veerappa Moily, KH Ranganath, MY Ghorpade, and many others, were his cabinet colleagues then.

Since 1972, Kharge had been a minister in every Congress government in Karnataka till he left for New Delhi to try his luck in national politics. It speaks volumes about his stature and importance within the party.

Kharge was a junior leader of the Karnataka Congress during the Indira Gandhi years. He became a mid-level leader during the Rajiv Gandhi days and emerged as a top-ranking leader after the 1990s.

His unwavering faith in the Gandhi family has helped him sail through during the difficult times in his career. “In the last 50 years, many tried to make him say something nasty about the Gandhi family. But he has always kept quiet, refusing to be a part of intra-party intrigues. That has helped him a lot," a senior Congress leader told News18 from Karnataka in 2021.

A good administrator, Kharge has handled various responsibilities both in the state and at the Centre, including that of state Congress president, leader of the opposition, cabinet minister with important portfolios, union cabinet minister, Congress Working Committee member, party general secretary, to name a few.

When the party high command decided to draft in JD(S) leader Siddaramaiah in 2006, fully knowing that it would eclipse his chief ministerial chances one day, Kharge accepted that decision. To make space for Siddaramaiah, Kharge was sent to New Delhi in 2009. Though not interested to relocate initially, he quietly accepted the party decision. His performance as labour and employment minister in the UPA2 government won him all- round praise, making him a national leader.

A rationalist who firmly believes in the ideals of Buddha and Ambedkar, Kharge is quite radical in his thoughts. But he is aware of the influence religion and caste have over politics and keeps his beliefs to himself. His critics call him a status-quoist. His admirers call him a quiet worker who won’t cross the Lakshman Rekha under any circumstances.

Kharge won nine straight Assembly elections between 1972 and 2008 and won two consecutive Lok Sabha elections after that. He suffered his first defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and a year after the shocking loss was nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

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    If Kharge wins against Tharoor, his elevation to the highest post in the Congress is unlikely to help the party in election-bound Karnataka. After Kharge’s shift to New Delhi in 2009, Siddaramaiah established control over the party and is currently the most powerful leader in the state.

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    first published:September 30, 2022, 15:25 IST
    last updated:October 01, 2022, 13:00 IST