Mallikarjun Kharge: Fulcrum, builder of bridges, consensus maker

The quietly decisive Congressman took over from the party presidency from two Gandhis in succession—and has captained the ship with a dignity and statesmanship reflecting its best traditions

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge (National Herald archives)
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge (National Herald archives)

Ashlin Mathew

It has been a year since Mallikarjun Kharge took charge as president of the Indian National Congress. During this year, he has been able to steer the party towards a stable base, while stewarding a new narrative. And he has done so by bringing everyone along, not only without ruffling feathers but soothing and grooming disparate voices into an almost-symphony. 

Kharge, who has been a Congressman for over 55 years, was the first non-Gandhi to head the party in 25 years. Certainly not an easy crown to inherit. It came with the baggage of factionalism, a string of defeats and demoralised party workers. 

A year ago, Kharge was not even seen as a serious contender for the post, when Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot was asked to file his nomination, alongside senior leader Digvijaya Singh. However, his caste (Kharge hails from a Dalit family in Bidar, Karnataka), his years of experience, his calm demeanour, and faithfulness to the party even in the face of personal losses ensured that he was the right person to pick up the baton of presidency for the grand old party. 

Kharge took charge after 23 years of Sonia Gandhi as president, and two years of Rahul Gandhi in between at the helm. Ahead of the party elections last year, Rahul Gandhi said multiple times that no one from the Gandhi family would seek the party’s leadership position this time. The intent was not just to discard the dynastic mould, but to break and throw it away, in an advertisement of the diversity and sideways inflow of strength within the party. 

Soon after the election results were announced, to ensure that there wouldn’t be any room for doubt who was in charge, Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi drove down to Kharge’s residence at 10 Rajaji Marg in New Delhi. This sent a message to the ranks. Rahul Gandhi was on his 3,500 km walking tour across the country at the time, on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, out to rejuvenate the party cadres; asked what his role would be going forward, he replied, “Whatever Kharge-ji will decide.” And that was that. 

Kharge has always reiterated that the Congress’ politics is founded on protecting and upholding India’s Constitution and strengthening the country’s democracy. “Social justice, economic empowerment, unhindered progressive ideas and welfare for the poorest are our core values,” he told National Herald. “We are for everyone.” 

“We believe that hate and divisiveness have no place in society. It is therefore that Rahul Gandhi-ji speaks about mohabbat ki dukaan.” (Clearly, the admiration is mutual.) 

Over the last year, if Rahul Gandhi was out expanding the party’s reach and visibility, outwards as well as downwards to the grassroots, the 81-year-old president has strengthened the ship from within, bolstering and burnishing the Congress legacy he has inherited. “The genesis of the Congress is rooted in the Freedom Movement,” Kharge said. “It shaped the vision of the new Independent nation, which quickly became the best example of a successful parliamentary democracy. From becoming a self-reliant nation in food production, to becoming nuclear power, to becoming the third-largest world economy in 2011, we built India." 

“It was the Congress that laid the foundation of India’s progress. The Congress, through the UPA years, also created the rights-based paradigm under Dr Manmohan Singh-ji and Sonia Gandhi-ji that young Indians have now come to expect as their right and duty,” continued Kharge. 

With his ability to listen actively and effectively, to lighten tensions with humour, Kharge has been able to curb the threat of factionalism in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Soon after he took charge, he held an almost-five-hour meeting with Gehlot and Sachin Pilot — continued to have conversations with both of them. The skill at statesmanship shows. He has been able to get these gentlemen, long wary of each other, to come together for the state elections in November. 

As a consensus builder, he ensured both Gehlot’s and Pilot’s grievances were heard. The two of them have since been seen sharing a stage, and Pilot addressed a press conference denouncing the Enforcement Directorate (ED) raid on Gehlot’s son Vaibhav and Rajasthan Congress president Govind Singh Dotasra. 

Ever since he has became president, Kharge has been meeting state leaders across the rungs of hierarchy, ensuring he remains accessible to all levels of Congress workers. 

In Chhattisgarh, seeking to put an end to the tussle between chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and senior party leader T.S. Singh Deo, Kharge appointed Deo as deputy chief minister in June. Though there has never been official confirmation, it was said that Baghel and Deo were both supposed to share the chief ministerial seat down the line, each taking a term of 2.5 years. However, that didn’t happen — Baghel reportedly did not wish to step down. 

In Karnataka, Kharge had to handle former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah, to whom he himself had lost the chief ministerial seat in 2011, as well as D.K. Shivakumar, who was also a frontrunner for the CM seat. Other senior leaders, G. Parameshwara, K.H. Muniyappa and M.B. Patil, too had ambitions of at least being appointed as deputy CMs. Kharge was able to get everyone to pull together instead of severally or against each other, eliciting patience all round, and leading by his own example to ensure Siddaramaiah was appointed chief minister with Shivakumar his deputy. 

In Himachal too, the 81-year-old was able to nip in the bud brewing factionism once Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu was appointed chief minister. Sukhu, Mukesh Agnihotri and former chief minister Virbhadra Singh’s wife Pratibha Singh had all been vying for the leader’s chair in the state. With Sukhu appointed CM, Agnihotri was made his deputy here, thus accommodating two of the three leaders at the pinnacle. The Singhs’ son Vikramaditya was given the PWD ministry in the government, while his mother continues as the Himachal Pradesh Congress chief — Kharge meets her often to discuss the party’s strategies and administration. 

Having ensured over this last year that the party functions as a single holistic unit, rather than power clusters around individual figureheads, Kharge is now confident that the Congress will win all the five state assemblies due for polling — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram. 

“It’s going to be 5-0! Our governments in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have done exemplary work,” said Kharge. “In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP gained power through the backdoor, and therefore people are going to teach the BJP a lesson by voting against them.” 

He has attended public meetings in four of these states and is heartened by great public support for the party. “I have a feeling that people will vote for our guarantees-based agenda and development-oriented welfare schemes,” the Congress president said. 

In Telangana, when erstwhile AICC secretary Manickam Tagore was not able to bring about a truce between the old loyalists led by Uttam Kumar Reddy and the relative newcomers led by Revanth Reddy, Kharge moved Manickrao Thakare into the role, who is known for his cool, collected approach. 

However, the greatest triumph of Kharge’s consensus-building skills this year has surely been the institution of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). Along with Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar, Bengal’s CM and All-India Trinamool Congress premier Mamata Banerjee and former Maharashtra CM Sharad Pawar, Kharge has been instrumental in bringing together several Opposition leaders—many of them traditional rivals in various states—on one platform, speaking in a common voice. Given his seniority, and his ability to win both local and national elections, most leaders have been willing to listen to him. 

Kharge has been able establish a good rapport with several of the Opposition MPs too, as he chairs their floor coordination meetings in Parliament. 

As head of a 138-year-old party, Kharge is steadfast on upholding India’s parliamentary democracy. He has always been clear about this priority, as seen in his speeches critiquing the BJP within Parliament and without. “We shall not tolerate any bulldozing of our institutions,” said the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. “All like-minded parties have realised the threat to our democracy and its institutions, and came together to form INDIA.” 

He pointed out that the stalwarts who together stand as INDIA have not been able to meet in person in October due to the state elections, but indicated the work to forge a common agenda continues, for governance that strengthens all autonomous institutions to function independently and in concert, without undue micromanagement or partisan interference. 

“In the last nine-and-a-half years, we have witnessed the BJP government’s relentless assault on our democracy. At least 95 per cent of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) cases are against Opposition leaders,” said Kharge. “Even while the (model) code of conduct is in operation, the ED is raiding and harassing Congress party leaders. This is a new low in Indian parliamentary democracy. However, we will fight this politically.” 

Though there was a six-month delay in reconstituting the Congress Working Committee, when it was finally announced, the positive response to the lineup spoke for itself. Kharge expanded the CWC to 35 members from the earlier 24 keeping in mind representation for disprivileged castes, communities and gender quotas in the grand old party’s top executive body. Even his opponent in the presidential elections, Shashi Tharoor, was given a seat at the CWC table. This sent the signal that personal differences did not matter, contributions to the cause did. 

Kharge must also be cognizant that while he leads the grand <old> party, half of India’s population is now under-30. “Today, we are faced with multiple challenges. For a nation, which has nearly half its population below 30 years of age, our economic policies have completely failed to take advantage of our demographic dividend,” said Kharge, pointing out that problems like inflation, income disparity, systematic destruction of small and medium businesses versus the creation of big business monopolies, and increasing divisiveness and hatemongering are issues that INDIA will have to deal with once they come to power in 2024. 

“We understand that India today is going through extremely difficult times under the Modi government,” said Kharge. “Therefore, we have come up with a blueprint of governance that believes in providing every citizen of India the guarantee of social justice and economic empowerment.” 

For both Kharge and the Congress, the road ahead winds through five state elections to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. He hopes it will be one that see the party morale snowball from triumph upon triumph. The decisive victory in the state elections, Kharge expects, will carry his party’s momentum—as well as the INDIA bloc’s—to victory in the 2024 elections.

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Published: 27 Oct 2023, 3:02 PM