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Will Congress bank on Mallikarjun Kharge as PM candidate after Karnataka victory?

Courtesy of Kharge, the Congress has scripted a new chapter in India’s 21st-century political history – and that has raised a tantalizing prospect. Will he become the first Dalit Prime Minister of India after 75 years of independence? asks Ravikant

The Congress party has scored an impressive win in the Karnataka Assembly elections, bagging 135 seats. The entire nation was keenly watching these polls. It was much talked about in the political circles and even the Hindi media covered it in detail. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) considered Karnataka as its gateway to south India and the opposition was keen to shut it out from the state – and from south of the Vindhyas. After this victory, the political circles are agog with speculations that the Congress may project Mallikarjun Kharge as its prime ministerial candidate in the general elections due next year. 

It was being said that the Karnataka polls would set the direction of the country’s politics in the coming months. Political analysts viewed it as the first semifinal before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The Congress’s victory in Karnataka has blown to smithereens the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image as an invincible poll-winner. It has also proved that the BJP can be defeated in elections. The outcome of the elections is a shot in the arm for the Congress. It will also boost the morale of the other opposition parties, besides giving the Congress a greater say in the opposition camp. Why the Congress won and why the BJP lost is being analyzed from all possible angles.  

Let us try to answer the two questions. To begin with, after a long time, the Congress’s poll campaign was well organized and systematic. Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar, despite their differences, worked in tandem. Congress President Kharge launched an acerbic attack on Modi from his home state and this senior, experienced Dalit leader helped fine tune the social equations on which the Congress was banking. This victory has added a few inches to his stature within the Congress.

AICC President Mallikarjun Kharge

The Karnataka mandate is significant for the Congress for another reason. Rahul Gandhi had spent 14 days in Karnataka during his Bharat Jodo Yatra. He boosted the morale of the party leaders and workers and interacted with the ordinary people to know about their problems and needs. The Congress claims that its ‘Sankalp Patra’ was drafted keeping the aspirations and the expectations of the people in mind and that it is committed to fulfilling its promises. This election was also a social audit of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. The victory has made it clear the Yatra was a thumping success. Rahul Gandhi has described the poll outcome as a victory of love and defeat of hatred.  

This election was also a litmus test for Kharge. It was the first election in his home state after his election as the party’s national president. It may be recalled that after Ashok Gehlot declined the offer, Kharge was picked as the “unofficial official” candidate of the Gandhi family for the Congress’s presidential elections. Pitted against him was Shashi Tharoor, an elitist leader from Kerala. Kharge won hands down. Courtesy of Kharge, the Congress has scripted a new chapter in India’s 21st-century political history – and that has raised a tantalizing prospect. Will Kharge become the first Dalit Prime Minister of India after 75 years of independence? Is the Congress aiming for such a narrative by handing over the Congress’s rein to him? Is the party going to fulfil Dr Ambedkar’s dream? 

In his last address to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949, which was the most enlightening and the most memorable speech of the 20th century, Ambedkar had said, “These downtrodden classes are tired of being governed. They are impatient to govern themselves.” Only this can establish social justice in an inequality-ridden India. That was probably why Gandhi had suggested to Nehru and Patel that Ambedkar be named as the chairperson of the drafting committee of the Constitution. 

Karnataka has 17 per cent Dalit population. It was due to Kharge that the Congress got such a massive backing of the Dalits. Nationally, Dalits form 16.7 per cent of the population. Dalits have been traditionally backing the Congress. With the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the dumps, the Dalits may return to the Congress fold. The narrative of a Dalit Prime Minister can help the Congress regain its lost ground in north India. 

The Karnataka elections were different in many respects. For the first time in the past 8-9 years, the Congress mounted an aggressive poll campaign. It not only attacked the state leadership of the BJP but also did not spare BJP’s superstar campaigner Narendra Modi – who has come to acquire a god-like status for the media and his supporters. Over the past nine years or so, a myth had been carefully constructed that attacking Modi was suicidal for the opposition. Citing the recent victories of the BJP, this myth was propagated so aggressively that not only the opposition but also many analysts began believing it to be true. So, Modi was invariably spared during poll campaigns. But Kharge busted this myth. He called Modi a venomous snake and in reply, Modi came out with a list of 91 abusive words hurled at him. He played the victim card to the hilt.

Priyanka Gandhi, too, made short work of this myth. Rahul Gandhi talked about the country’s misery and corruption. He also exposed Modi’s divisive politics. Modi was waiting for his chance. It was a Eureka moment for Modi and the BJP when the Congress, in its Sankalp Patra, promised to ban fanatic organizations like the Bajrang Dal and Popular Front of India (PFI). Ignoring the orders of the Supreme Court and the tenets of the secular Constitution of India, Narendra Modi began giving a religious tinge to the poll campaign. He linked Bajrang Dal with Bajrangbali. He said that the Congress wanted to lock up Bajrangbali. The media, too, raised this issue aggressively. The people in the Hindi belt thought that Modi would have the last laugh. Secular intelligentsia began blaming the Congress for putting a potent religious issue on a platter for an accomplished orator like Modi. The prime minister is known for using Hindutva narrative to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. That is the one reason the opposition and the intellectual class fear Modi. 

But in the Karnataka elections, the Congress took on the propaganda of the BJP and Modi without any reservations. Rahul Gandhi has been targeting the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its thinkers for the past two-three years. When the Bharat Jodo Yatra was traversing Maharashtra, he questioned the patriotism of Savarkar, describing him as “Maafi Veer”. At the time, too, some analysts had described it as a self-goal, but Rahul Gandhi stuck to his guns. He also sent out a clear message to the right-wing within his party that they are expendable. Rahul Gandhi seemed firm and committed to taking on divisive, communal politics. That was, probably, what prompted the Congress to boldly equate the Bajrang Dal with the PFI. The Karnataka victory has proved that Rahul Gandhi had taken the correct stand. 

Is Rahul Gandhi fashioning a new Congress? One thing is for sure. He is relentlessly pushing the agenda of secularism and social justice. The resolutions adopted at the party’s national conclave in Raipur are proof. 

Some time ago, Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin said that the country’s politics is a battle between Sanatan and social justice. The Congress’s victory in Karnataka is the victory of the forces of social justice. In his poll campaign, Rahul Gandhi reiterated the stand the party took at the Raipur conclave. While the Congress placed Dalit-OBC leaders like Kharge, Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar at the forefront of its campaign, the BJP replaced OBC leaders with Brahmins leaders like B.L. Santosh and Prahlad Joshi. The Karnataka voters firmly and decisively rejected the BJP led by the Brahmins. The direction that politics will take in the future is now clear. Social justice and empowerment of Dalits and other deprived classes will be central to the campaign for the 2024 General Elections.  

(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)


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About The Author

Ravikant

Ravikant is assistant professor of Hindi in Lucknow University. He was born into a Dalit family in Jalaun district, Uttar Pradesh. He holds an MA and an MPhil from JNU, Delhi, and a PhD from Lucknow University. Among the books he has authored are 'Samaj aur Aalochana', 'Azadi aur Rashtravad', 'Aaj ke Aaine mein Rashtravad' and 'Aadhagaon mein Muslim Asmita'. He has also edited the 'Adhan' magazine.

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