Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge may have landed his party in a soup last week with his “poisonous snake” jibe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi but his involvement with the Karnataka poll campaign has filled a void that his party colleagues had been feeling acutely for the past few years.
Despite his advanced age, which at the time of his nomination for the Congress’ presidential elections last October many felt would put him at a disadvantage, 80-year-old Kharge has proved to be a voracious, even if controversy-prone, poll campaigner for his party. This distinguishes Kharge from his predecessor, 76-year-old Sonia Gandhi, whose ill-health prevented her from being physically present at election rallies practically throughout her tenure as interim Congress chief between August 2019 and October 2022.
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In fact, Sonia had largely withdrawn from campaigning for the Congress soon after her party registered its worst-ever Lok Sabha election performance in 2014, leaving the task to her son, Rahul Gandhi, who at the time was the party’s vice-president and principal campaigner. As party chief and chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP), Sonia continued to regularly chair internal meetings of the party – such as those of the CWC or the CPP – and would occasionally attend Parliament but her public outings in election campaigns had become a rarity.
Sonia’s absence from the party’s election campaigns was often remarked about – in hushed whispers among Congress leaders and more vocally by the party’s rivals and political commentators – both before Rahul’s anointment as Congress chief in December 2017 and, particularly, since August 2019 when her son’s abrupt decision to quit the post taking moral responsibility for his party’s rout in the Lok Sabha election forced her to return to the job.
Though she continued to assert that she was a “full-time, hands on Congress president”, her absence from assembly poll campaigns in Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana (in 2019), Delhi, Bihar (in 2020), Assam, Kerala, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal (in 2021), Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur (in 2022) had led to a situation wherein the Grand Old Party, already battling a prolonged drought of poll victories, was repeatedly forced to go into electoral battles with its chief unavailable to lead the charge.
Sonia’s inability to lead the Congress’ poll campaigns at a time when the BJP wouldn’t hold back on getting its troika of the Prime Minister, Union Home Minister and the BJP’s national president to campaign in municipal polls like the one in Hyderabad in 2020 was one of several reasons that led the now disbanded G-23 leaders of the GOP to demand a “full time, effective and visible leadership”.
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Kharge, thus, presents a major contrast from the latter part of Sonia’s long stint as Congress president. If Sonia had gone missing in action for as many as 15 assembly polls that were held between her return as interim Congress chief in August 2019 and her voluntary retirement from the job in October 2022, Kharge has addressed 15 rallies and some half a dozen press conferences across poll-bound Karnataka in the past week alone. On Tuesday (May 2), Kharge unveiled his party’s manifesto for the Karnataka polls – a job that both Sonia and Rahul used to leave to the Congress’ state leadership during assembly elections.
“This level of involvement of the party president in poll campaigns and public outreach programs was what we all wanted. It had ceased to happen when Sonia Gandhi returned as interim chief even though that was a period when we needed a chief who could lead from the front because the party’s morale was at its nadir. Even if Kharge’s deep interest in the Karnataka campaign is because it’s an election in his home state and one that the Congress is well poised to win, his extensive rallies, road shows and interactions with workers is a major morale booster and also projects the confidence we have regarding our electoral prospects,” a Congress leader who was part of the G-23 told The Federal.
It may, of course, be premature for the Congress to see Kharge’s engagement with the Karnataka campaign as a definitive marker of his involvement in the high stakes assembly polls that are to follow in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana later this year.
Kharge had taken over as party president weeks before Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh went to polls. However, unlike Karnataka, he made only fleeting appearances in Gujarat, a state where the Congress’ campaign was barely visible, and Himachal, where Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was supervising the party’s electoral crusade against the BJP amid heady hopes – which immediately proved right – of an anti-BJP mandate.
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This inconsistency in Kharge’s participation in the three different campaigns, say sources close to him, will be rectified moving forward. “The Gujarat and Himachal campaigns had largely been finalised by the time Kharge took over as party chief. Also, Kharge had been elected Congress president just a month before those elections and he still had a lot of internal issues of the party to look into. With Karnataka it was always clear that he will be involved with every aspect of the campaign because it is his native state and for nearly 40 years of his five decade long political career, his politics was at the state-level which naturally puts him at an advantage against the BJP’s central leadership vis-a-vis Karnataka because he knows the state like the back of his hand. But you can rest assured that he will be as involved with the assembly elections in other states too; he believes in leading from the front and he won’t let his age be a liability,” said a Congress leader who is attached with the party chief’s office.
The Kharge aide also said that the octogenarian leader had left “many earlier doubters in the party stunned” with his “appetite for party work”. “Forget the poll campaign, even when he is in Delhi, Kharge’s day typically begins early and goes on till way past midnight. He meets party leaders and ordinary workers all day at his 10, Rajaji Marg residence and is also regularly in touch with leaders of other Opposition parties to discuss the way forward for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. After the Karnataka polls, he also plans to reserve some hours for a day or two every week to sit in the party headquarters so that he is more easily accessible to party members and the media who may otherwise not be able to meet him at his residence,” the aide said.
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Where Kharge seems to be lacking, so far, is in his ability to resolve several organisational matters that have now been pending redressal for months. Major among these is a resolution of the prolonged turf war between Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and former deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot.
A senior party office bearer told The Federal, “The focus is currently on Karnataka. Once the election is over, all pending issues – the Rajasthan matter, the reconstitution of the CWC, new appointments in the AICC – will be taken up by the Congress president without delay. A number of organisational reforms that were ratified at our 85th Plenary Session in Raipur in February are also awaiting implementation. There is no question of putting them off and the Congress president is very clear that whatever correctives need to be applied will be applied. It’s just a matter of another two weeks and once the Karnataka results are out, he will take these up on priority.”