At 71, most politicians think that they have entered the sunset phase of their political lives, even when they are known to never retire. The ones who continue to hold powerful positions in their parties or the government at such an age are generally the ones who carry their power and glory from their younger days. However, the scenario is very different with Mallikarjun Kharge.
When the Congress chose him as its leader in the Lok Sabha after a lot of deliberations, it was an unusual choice for a defeated and dejected party. He was 71, relatively unknown despite being a Union minister twice and not considered a Congress heavyweight.
The Congress’ strength was so depleted in the 16th Lok Sabha after the 2014 General Election that it could not even lay claim to the post of the leader of the opposition. As events unfolded, and an aggressive Narendra Modi started putting his stamp in policymaking and governance, journalists started writing about the death of the Congress and the inability of its leadership under Rahul Gandhi to offer an answer to Modi’s aggression both inside and outside Parliament.
But Kharge had other plans, and he did not think that age came in the way of his performance. Instead, he is amused at the age question. “Are you suggesting that experience is of no value?” he asks, adding, “I have spent almost 52 years in politics. My experience from a block president’s position to now as the Congress president helps me in decision-making. Similarly, Sonia ji’s experience of nearly 22 years as the Congress president is unmatched. Her insights are of tremendous value to us. Therefore, our decision-making process is much more consultative.”
A New Leader Rises
In his accented Hindi, and with the knowledge of the grassroots politics, Kharge established his authority both as a leader of his party and an important voice that the treasury bench could not take lightly. It happened at a time when all focus was either on Modi’s speeches, who was establishing himself in Parliament as a first-time member of the lower house, or Gandhi’s interjections and speeches, since he was the rising star of the Congress, resented by its old guard and egged on by its younger members. The pro-Congress media and the liberal intellectual class saw in Gandhi the potential saviour of the country from the right-wing storm that Modi’s ascent had unleashed.
In this setting, Kharge was a quiet performer, but did not go unnoticed in any quarter of politics and the media. It did not take him long to cultivate a following both within and outside the party due to the powerful and aggressive challenges he threw at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Parliament. Within the house, he managed to rile the BJP and its allies regularly during debates, many of which took place in the presence of Prime Minister Modi.
Kharge often questioned the BJP and its ideological mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) about their contribution to the Indian freedom movement. His experience allowed him to quote controversial statements made by the second head of the RSS M.S. Golwalkar on Hindutva, minorities and the freedom struggle. On one such occasion in February 2017, when he raised the question about the role of the RSS in the Indian history, then Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan expunged his statement from parliamentary records.
By the time Kharge lost the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Gulbarga in Karnataka, he was seen as an important player in the Congress, someone who was an asset to counter an even more aggressive Modi after his second momentous victory.
But the Congress had a different problem to fight. It had lost 2019 Lok Sabha election under Gandhi’s leadership who was already fighting the party’s old guard that seemed completely at odds with Gandhi’s politics.
The Congress sent Kharge to the Rajya Sabha in 2020, and he was appointed the leader of the opposition there on February 16, 2021. It was no coincidence that he replaced Ghulam Nabi Azad as the leader of the opposition, whose Rajya Sabha term ended on February 15, 2021. Azad was seen as a leader of the disgruntled old guard which had, of late, started singing the praises of the BJP, which was not so subtle a dig at Gandhi and his associates in the party.
On October 1, 2022, when Kharge won the party election to become its president, his task was cut out. He had to be a bridge between the younger leaders and the old guard, while he also needed to take on the BJP throughout the country. A year on, he has ticked these boxes. He says, “There are bound to be a few issues in any democratic set-up, which are ironed out whenever they arise. For my party people, my prescription is simple: if you want to save democracy and the constitution, you must stay united. If you want to save India, you must work together. Personal ambition is good, but it will have to wait. I convince them with my own experience.”
Kharge credits Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra for the revival in the party’s fortune and sees his success as president in the last one year as a continuation of the momentum generated by the yatra. “The Bharat Jodo Yatra was an outcome of the Udaipur Chintan Shivir, where we made the landmark resolution, which was adopted in the Raipur plenary session. We decided on a range of pathbreaking reforms, and since I got elected as the president of the party, I have squarely focused on implementing the resolution,” he says.
Under Kharge, the Congress has acquired the much-needed balance between the old and the new, which has given it a political coherence to reclaim the national stature that it seemed to have lost in recent years. The two victories in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh assemblies have given him the weight that a president of a national party covets. But he is hungry for more. He says, “South India has shut the door on the BJP. You will see the Congress returning to power in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and we are also going to form governments in both Madhya Pradesh and Telangana.”
This kind of result, if it happens, will set Kharge in the mould of a leader that the Congress chose him for.