The Congress has thrown a surprise by nominating former railway minister Mallikarjun Kharge as the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha. Party insiders reveal that the decision to appoint the 72-year-old Dalit leader from Karnataka was taken with an eye on the Assembly elections to be held in the months ahead in four states — Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Haryana and Delhi.
“There is a pro-Hindutva wave across large parts of the country and only a Dalit face would have the best chance to counter it,” says a senior Congress leader from Karnataka, who is currently camping in New Delhi. “By appointing Kharge as the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha ahead of the Assembly polls in four states, the Congress is sending a message to the Dalit and backward-caste voters that the party is with them.”
Many party leaders also suggest that by appointing Kharge, the Congress high command is rewarding the party’s Karnataka unit, which sent the largest contingent of mps to the Lok Sabha in this year’s General Election. Nine of the total 44 Congress mps in the Lok Sabha were elected from the south Indian state.
As the Congress failed to bag one-tenth (54) of the total number of seats (543) in the Lok Sabha, which would have made it the Opposition party, Kharge will not be automatically designated the Leader of the Opposition. But as the Congress is the second largest party in the Lower House, followed by the J Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK with 37 seats and the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress with 32 seats, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could ask Lok Sabha pro-tem Speaker Kamal Nath to consider Karge as the Opposition leader.
While Kharge’s appointment was done directly by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, it has caused much flutter, if not heartburn, among the party circles in the national capital. “Everybody had expected that Kamal Nath, the nine-time MP from Madhya Pradesh, would be given that post, but he was appointed the Speaker instead,” says the Congress leader from Karnataka.
Reputed to have a clean image, Kharge had been untouched by allegations of corruption during the UPA regime. “Even after the UPA government had lost its credibility because of a series of scams, no one attacked Kharge. He has always stayed out of controversy. That’s another reason why the Congress high command chose him for his new role,” says political analyst SA Hemanth Kumar. “He is also very meticulous, works hard and has a thorough knowledge of systems and processes.”
Kharge’s political career dates back to 1972. Since then, he has been elected to the Karnataka Assembly nine times and was twice appointed the Leader of the Opposition there. Many remember the way he handled the crisis emanating from the kidnapping of veteran Kannada actor Rajkumar in 1999 by forest brigand Veerappan when SM Krishna was the chief minister. Karge was then the state’s home minister.
In 2009, Kharge was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Gulbarga reserved constituency with a margin of 74,000 votes. This year, too, he won from the same seat.
Kharge had thrice come close to becoming the chief minister. He never rued the fact that Krishna was appointed the CM instead of him in 1999. Again, in 2008, JD(S) supremo HD Deve Gowda preferred N Dharam Singh instead of Kharge to lead the Congress-JD(S) coalition government. And in 2013, the party chose Siddaramaiah instead of him for the CM’s post. After this year’s General Election, it was speculated that Kharge would replace Siddaramaiah. The CM’s fears have been laid to rest for the time being with Karge’s appointment as the leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha. This is also a message that Siddaramaiah is here to stay and no dissidence would be tolerated in the party, say insiders.
“The battered Congress has given a difficult job to the Dalit leader,” says political commentator Shiv Sundar. “Had the party got a majority, Karge would not have been made the prime minister.”