Loyalist, Revivalist, Or Just A Placeholder?

Mallikarjun Kharge: Loyalist, Revivalist, Or Just A Placeholder?

Mallikarjun Kharge with Rahul Gandhi, who remains the Congress’s face, in ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’. (File)

New Delhi:

Mallikarjun Kharge may have been the Establishment candidate in the Congress chiefship contest, but he is hard to beat anyway — having won almost every election he has fought. 

‘Solillada saradara’, the undefeated leader, is what his supporters call him in Kannada.

The party poll victory makes him the first non-Gandhi Congress chief in 24 years. He is also the first Dalit to lead the Congress in 50 years, only the second after Jagjivan Ram. He’s been a politician for more than five decades, which means this isn’t quite the only feat he’s achieved.

Now in the Rajya Sabha, often seen as the typical loyalist’s route to being near the top rung, he was elected to the assembly in Karnataka nine times before entering the Lok Sabha in 2009. He kept that Lok Sabha seat even when the Modi wave blew much of the Congress away in 2014.

But the Congress withered further in 2019. He, too, lost. He entered the Upper House in 2021, unchallenged, from Karnataka. In the Rajya Sabha, he was Leader of Opposition until he resigned last month, loyal to the party’s ‘one person, one post’ rule to contest the internal election.

At 80, he is perhaps a generation or two older than the rival he defeated, 66-year-old Shashi Tharoor.

Age is one of two chief points made against his being fit to lead the Congress into the 2024 contest against PM Narendra Modi-led BJP.

The other is the allegation that he’s just a placeholder, a loyalist who isn’t going to do much of a shake-up. Shashi Tharoor underlined that with his pitch being “Think Tomorrow”.

Who’s driving?

Even today, Mr Kharge was keen to drive to Sonia Gandhi’s house after being declared the winner, sources said. That drive could’ve further fueled the charge that he is but a proxy while the Gandhis steer him from the backseat. The plan was dropped, and Sonia Gandhi drove to his home instead.


Not that he’s apologetic about being a loyalist, though he wasn’t quite the first choice on that count either. He has said he would consult the Gandhis and other senior leaders in a “collective decision-making process”.

He stepped in without fuss after the Gandhis’ first choice, Ashok Gehlot, did not quit as Rajasthan Chief Minister.

A lawyer and union leader, he stepped into the Congress in 1969, when Indira Gandhi was still Prime Minister. He won nine times in a row from Gurmitkal in his home district Gulbarga (since renamed to Kalaburagi). He was chief of the city Congress and later the state unit, and twice won the Lok Sabha polls from Gulbarga segment.

In Karnataka, he led commissions that carried out land reforms among other social measures, and later became a minister too. He served as Leader of Opposition in the Karnataka assembly too.

He was leader of the party in the Lok Sabha from 2014 to 2019 but not the Leader of Opposition technically, because the party did not have the numbers — short of the required 10 per cent of the seats to get the post.

In Manmohan Singh’s cabinet during the 10 years of UPA rule, he was minister for Labour, Railways and Social Justice. 

In his state, Karnataka, he was Home Minister — Number 2 to the Chief Minister — but never got the top chair.

Identity and politics 

Whenever his caste identity was cited to say he should be Chief Minister at some point, he’d shut the talk down — in his signature sober tone. “Why do you keep saying Dalit again and again? Don’t say that. I’m a Congressman,” he said when this came up during the Congress president’s election too.

“A humble party worker from an ordinary family has today got the honour of becoming the party’s president,” he said in a post-win address.

He was born at Varavatti in Bidar district of Karnataka on July 21, 1942, and got a BA and a law degree from Kalaburagi. He worked as a lawyer before entering politics fulltime. A year before the political plunge, he got married in 1968. With wife Radhabai, he has two daughters and three sons.

One of his sons, Priyank Kharge, is a legislator in Karnataka who’s been a minister in the previous Congress government.

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