As the day comes nearer, it becomes clearer that veteran Congress leader Mappana Mallikarjun Kharge is the overwhelming favourite to beat senior leader Shashi Tharoor in the party’s presidential elections.
Despite throwing his hat on the last day of nomination, it is never in doubt that the octogenarian leader from Karnataka, who played a crucial part in the party at the national as well as the state level, has the blessings of the Gandhi family.
Born in Varawatti in the Bidar district of Karnataka, Kharge’s brush with politics started during his college days when he was elected as the general secretary of the student body of Government College in Gulbarga.
Kharge formally entered politics five decades ago when he joined Congress in 1969 and was made city president of the Gulbarga Congress Committee. His elevation was not a surprise considering Kharge had, by then, already made his mark as a labour union leader through his work as the legal advisor of the MSK Mills Employees’ Union.
Three years later, in 1972, he contested his first assembly election from the Gurmitkal constituency. He went on to win the seat eight consecutive times. In 2008, he won the assembly elections for a record ninth time after switching to the Chittapur constituency.
One of the senior leaders in the party, Kharge was the frontrunner for the chief minister’s post in 2004. However, the party opted for another senior leader, Dharam Narayan Singh, to lead the coalition with JD (Secular).
In 2005, Kharge was made Karnataka Congress chief and the party fought the 2008 elections under his leadership. Many thought it was Kharge’s best opportunity to become the CM, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pipped Congress to win the election – forcing Kharge to settle for the post of Leader of Opposition.
According to party leaders, Kharge, a Dalit leader, rose in the party hierarchy because of his patience, vast administrative experience, and his ability to grasp any situation.
Many leaders also believe that Kharge was also rewarded for his unnerving loyalty to the Gandhi family.
Kharge made a foray into national politics by winning the Gulbarga Lok Sabha Constituency in the 2009 election. It was his 10th consecutive win. He retained the seat in the 2014 elections and was made Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
Cutting across the party lines, Kharge earned laurels for his conduct as the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Such was his conduct that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised him for his conduct.
Though Kharge lost the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, his impressive conduct in Parliament as well as his loyalty to the party saw him return to Delhi as a member of the Rajya Sabha in 2021. He was also made the Leader of the Opposition in the upper house of Parliament.
During his long political career, Kharge worked under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. He had been a minister in every Congress government in Karnataka from 1972 to 2009.
While he remained unnerved despite being overlooked for the chief minister’s post back in 2004, Kharge’s loyalty to the party was once again on display just days back. After filing his nomination for the post of Congress president, Kharge immediately sent his resignation from the post of Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha – in accordance with the party’s ‘one person, one post’ rule.
That Kharge managed to bring some of the prominent G23 leaders, who had written to Sonia Gandhi in 2020 looking for active leadership, for his nomination speaks volumes about the respect he commands in the party.
Congress will hope that with patience and vast experience, Kharge can paper over the cracks that put the party into an existential crisis. Congress will pin its hope that the grand old man can change the fortunes of the grand old party.