The rise of the 'middle path' politician

Mallikarjun Kharge, new Congress president, is nothing like the demeaning caricatures you may have seen of him. In the era of projection and self-promotion, he stands out as a self-effacing team man

The rise of the 'middle path' politician

Ashlin Mathew

The question, asked with trademark contempt Delhi media circles reserve for anyone or anything they can’t wrap their head around, or left dangling uncertainly in commentaries this month, was: ‘Who is Kharge?’ He was described as the dark horse before the Congress presidential election and reports in so-called national media claimed with great assurance that Mallikarjun Kharge’s USP was that he is a Gandhi family loyalist. And, oh yes, he is a Dalit!

The man himself went about the business of answering critics with the kind of dignity and maturity fast becoming a thing of the past in Indian politics. He didn’t like “marketing” himself, he simply said. Asked if he would consult Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi after he takes charge as party president, he calmly asserted his belief in “a consultative process” and in trying to “find a consensus” on most issues.

Now that he has been elected Congress president and is in the saddle, it’s tempting to compare the life and politics of Mallikarjun Kharge with the man of the most outsized reputation in contemporary Indian politics. Unlike Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who makes a big performance of not being invested in his natal family, Kharge is the quintessential ‘family man’, an indulgent father and a doting grandfather.

The contrast runs deeper. Modi makes much of his humble beginnings: he likes to remind us at every turn that he is the son of a chaiwala from a ‘backward’ class; Kharge, by contrast, has never invoked his Dalit roots. As a savvy politician, he will know that the Dalit card has currency, but he doesn’t play it. Rarely before thanking Congressmen for electing a labourer’s son has he made references to his own humble beginnings.

The rise of the 'middle path' politician

Modi once famously said he was a school dropout, not because of family circumstances but to join the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). Kharge, on the other hand, has rarely spoken of his traumatic childhood, when he lost his mother and a sister in an act of arson—he was just seven years old at the time. The only one among his siblings to go to college, Kharge pursued a degree in law after graduation and became one of the first lawyers from his community in his native Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi), Karnataka. Modi acquired a degree in ‘Entire Political Science’, through means unknown and shrouded in mystery despite several RTI (right to information) requests. Kharge served as the legal advisor to the mill workers’ union and saw to it that workers received a fair deal. Modi embraced aggressive Hindutva; Kharge is a practising Buddhist, drawn to its emphasis on compassion and the Buddha’s ‘Middle Path’.

Kharge served as minister in governments headed by as many as six chief ministers. He was reputedly one of the best ministers in the Devaraj Urs government. As home minister under S.M. Krishna, he had to deal with the kidnapping of—and ransom demand for—Kannada filmstar Rajkumar by sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. He was instrumental in securing the release of the hostage without paying a ransom.

The chief minister’s office eluded him, possibly because of his caste or because he had no powerful state lobby to back him. But the fact that Kharge never turned sour even after being so close for so long to an office most lesser mortals would covet, the fact that he unstintedly gave his best even when credit was not his to claim, has earned him, over time, the reputation of a team man that everyone wants in and by their side. The history of the Congress is littered with leaders who quit in a huff when personal ambitions were thwarted, but Kharge soldiered on through apparent reverses probably because something in the way he is put together makes him accept whatever comes his way as a gift rather than a right.

The third Dalit president of the Congress after D. Sanjeevaiah and Babu Jagjivan Ram, he will now occupy an office graced, among others, by Mahatma Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Madan Mohan Malviya, Lala Lajpat Rai, Subhas Chandra Bose, Abul Kalam Azad, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, J.B. Kripalani, Jawaharlal Nehru, K. Kamaraj, Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi.

He did not even seek the party presidentship; the contest was thrust upon him when Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot stood down after his request to simultaneously hold two posts caused first a flutter and then a fiasco. As a Congress leader said: “Kharge is no showboater, he is not into projection. He is your quintessential organisation man, advancing the collective interests of the party”. Most party leaders agree that the new Congress president has much more than just loyalty—if anything, his loyalty is owed first to the party ideology, a commodity that should be in demand when supply is so scarce in the time of betrayals and opportunism. They also agree that Kharge has lasting power, he is a political marathoner or as some would say ‘lambi race ka ghoda’.

His dour demeanour belies Kharge’s wit and love of a good repartee. AICC secretary Christopher Tilak remembers engaging Kharge in a conversation at Udaipur about the retirement age of politicians. Kharge, characteristically, switched the question back to Tilak, who flippantly said: “All those who have pheeki chai (sugar-free tea) should be put on the retirement list.” Kharge grinned widely and said he still liked sugar in his chai. Kharge reminded him, Tilak recalls, that Kerala elected V.S. Achuthanandan to serve as chief minister between 2006 and 2011; V.S. relinquished that office at the age of 88, though he continued to be an MLA from Malampuzha till 2021. Politicians should be judged on their ability to deliver, not their age, he apparently said. In Kharge, Tilak enthuses, the Congress has got the dabang (irrepressible) leader it needed at the helm. With all that electoral and administrative experience, Kharge will be anything but a rubber stamp that many omniscient eminences in national media apparently think he will be in his new role.

A polyglot, he is comfortable in Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Hindi and English, but wears this ability lightly. Having struggled early in his life he is said to be passionate about education. Both his daughters are doctors and only one of his three sons, Priyank, is an active politician. The eldest son Rahul, who quit his job as an IAS officer, is now a scientist at the Indian Institute of Science and his youngest son Milind, who is a management graduate from the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, works in the private sector.

In his home state, bureaucrats remember him as a dignified, self-effacing man. Always assertive in advancing public interest, they say Kharge never asked for personal favours. One former bureaucrat reminisced about the time when Kharge was Union railway minister and someone credited him at a public function with starting an inter-city train. Kharge was quick to point out that it was, in fact, his predecessor Dinesh Trivedi who had done that. Director of the Institute of Kannada Studies at Gulbarga University, H.T. Pote is an unabashed Kharge fan. So much so that he wrote a biography of the Congress leader in 2017. Pote has vivid memories of his first encounter with Kharge in 1986, when he was still a research scholar and Kharge the Leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka assembly. He had gone to complain about the transfer of an exceptional teacher and was overwhelmed by the response he got.

Dharam Singh, Devraj Urs and Mallikarjun Kharge during an election rally in Gulbarga, 1976
Kharge along with Dharam Singh
(extreme right) during the opening of the Karnataka People’s Education Society School in Gulbarga in the late 1970s
Kharge with Indira Gandhi and Devraj Urs during campaigning in Gulbarga,1976
Vasant Rao Desai, K Prabhakar and Mallikarjun Kharge after he was sworn in as MoS for primary education in the Urs cabinet, 1976
R. Gundu Rao with Kharge in the Vidhan Sabha lobby, early 1980s
Kharge, Veerappa Moily and H.K. Patil with the then chief minister H.D. Deve Gowda during a meeting in the mid 1990s

On his commitment to education, Pote recalls that in 1976 after a statue of B.R. Ambedkar was unveiled by Indira Gandhi at Gulbarga, “it was found that Rs 36,000—a handsome amount at the time—had remained unspent. Khargeji used the money to set up the Karnataka People’s Education Society on the lines of the Mumbai-based People Education Society established by Ambedkar”. As the state’s education minister, Kharge at one point filled up the entire backlog of 18,000 teacher vacancies.

K. Sudhakaran, president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee has known Kharge for the past 20 years. “I first met him when I did not hold any important position in or outside the party. We went to him about a Malayali family in Karnataka whose house had been forcibly taken over by a local land shark. Kharge intervened without any fuss or delay and the family got back possession,” recalls Sudhakaran. “On another occasion, I got in touch with him about compensation the government had promised someone. The payment was delayed and this person was in financial distress. Not only did Kharge call the department secretary immediately, he also followed up and kept in touch with us until he got word that the issue had been resolved.”

What that tells us about the man is his ability to relate to problems not simply at the level of statistics and spreadsheets but as the lived experience of people. What the Congress will probably value even more than all his political skill and handy administrative experience is Mallikarjun Kharge’s unmatched ability to look past self-interest at what is in the larger interest of the party. As party spokesperson Gourav Vallabh says: Kharge is not an ‘I’ specialist.

With inputs from Naheed Ataulla in Bengaluru, Sujata Anandan in Mumbai and Vishwadeepak in New Delhi

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