How on three occassions, Mallikarjun Kharge missed the chance to become chief minister

He has always been a quiet worker, though he can deliver good oratory whenever it is needed. He researches as much as Siddaramaiah or Deve Gowda. He knows all the details of every single thing he speaks about. He has a great deal of administrative experience and has a firm hand dealing with partymen, bureaucracy and the public. There is really no one who does not have respect for him.

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Sowmya Aji
Sowmya Aji
was a political journalist for 26 years covering Karnataka and Parliament.

There are tons of memories and of course, it’s hard to figure out where to start. So this is going to be random and rambly, but I hope it will be useful to kind of get an idea of the man behind the public figure that Mallikarjun Kharge is.

I’m not going into the debate of ‘is he the man who can take on the BJP or resurrect Congress’ because that is not the point of this exercise. I just want to acknowledge a man who has definitely always been the best choice and has always not got what he wanted or what he deserved due to obvious reasons as well as circumstances.

The son of a mill worker who just kept rising: that’s what we can publicly see. He was Congres state president and a very effective opposition leader. Knowledgeable on the floor of the house and off it. He is also very funny and bitingly sarcastic, when he can relax and chat. 

I remember one occasion when the late N D Shivakumar and I were on an election tour in Gulbarga and we got to ride in his car with him through the dust and heat. He held us enthralled for a good two hours with reminiscences of various political incidents from Karnataka history, his youth and how things were in the olden days. Shivu told me afterwards: “I never knew he could be that friendly and tell us such inside stories with so much warmth.” Yes and I agree, Shivu.

The other occasion I recall where he surprised people was when he came for a Times event and had all our senior staff in splits with his very witty jokes. He made no fuss about attending the event, waited patiently for all other participants to turn up, held the stage and upstaged everyone present (including other senior politicians), because he was relaxed and in full flow that day. I remember people telling me “we never knew he was so funny and had such conversation capabilities! We never see this?”. Yes, true. 

mallikarjun kharge congress president chief minister aicc
Mallikarjun Kharge receives certificate from outgoing president Sonia Gandhi

Always, always, Kharge sahebru has chosen his words very carefully. He has been very conscious of the impact on his image and also on his people, so he never says anything that has not been precisely reasoned out. It is not easy being a Dalit leader through the eras that he has seen and it is still not easy being a Dalit leader today. His plus has been that he knows the grassroots pulse and has been as shrewd as Deve Gowdru in assessing it and harnessing it. 

In my mind, it’s an absolute tragedy that he never got to be chief minister. A senior journo once told me: “Karnataka will never allow it” and I was horrified to hear that. But turned out I am the idealist dreamer and the senior journo whom I was furious with for saying that was actually correct. Why, oh why is not merit and ability the only criterion for leadership? Yes, I hear all the anti-reservation bunch sitting up and taking note of my point here, but has it struck anyone that “reservation” actually works both ways? And prevents really “samartha” people from the Dalit communities from reaching real posts of power?

In the first round, Kharge sahebru lost out to SMK, who came from nowhere, took out a Panchajanya yatra (that Kharge also organized) and took the chief minister’s post. What about the 5 years of battling with Deve Gowda and J H Patel that Kharge did as leader of the opposition, so very efficiently? Ah well, when the CM had to be decided, it was SMK as party prez at the last minute and not the man who fought the Janata Parivar for 5 years. And this was a decision that Sonia Ji took.

Round two was the Congress-JDS govt where Siddaramaiah was deputy chief minister. “Set dose” as Dharam Singh-Kharge-HK Patil were called at that time stood strong. Kharge stayed silent when his pal Dharam Singh was favoured and given the job. And soldiered on for the party, as always.

And round three was the face-off with Siddaramaiah. This was at least an election in the Congress Legislature Party. And since the 2013 election was basically a Siddarmaiah show, this was the one where Kharge had the least right to be bitter. But Kharge was the actual Congress leader, Siddaramaiah was the incoming one. And it was, even in his head, the last chance he had at getting to the post. And it was the one rare occasion where he showed me his despair at having lost the post. 

To my mind, he would’ve been a really strong and efficient CM. He has always been a quiet worker, though he can deliver good oratory whenever it is needed. He researches as much as Siddaramaiah or Deve Gowda. He knows all the details of every single thing he speaks about. He has a great deal of administrative experience and has a firm hand dealing with partymen, bureaucracy and the public. There is really no one who does not have respect for him. 

But, he has never pushed himself forward or pushed anyone else down. He is not a man to wear his heart on his sleeve. And so, he is often just taken for granted.

I am glad that, for whatever reason and in whatever circumstances, he has at least been the de facto opposition leader in Lok Sabha and has now been given the topmost position in his party. Yes, people will say puppet and etc, but he will do his best and he will do it in his own quiet way. He did and does deserve way more and I am not satisfied with the rewards his political diligence and life have given him. But knowing Kharge sahebru, he will say: “Yen agot nodan bidri“. And quote a shyer.

Sowmya Aji
Sowmya Aji
was a political journalist for 26 years covering Karnataka and Parliament.

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