He may be heading India’s oldest political party but Mallikarjun Kharge is huffing and puffing in Karnataka to ensure that the Congress does not slip up in his own political bastion.
Kalaburagi, earlier known as Gulbarga, is the home district of AICC president Kharge and falls in the Kalyana Karnataka region. It has now become a leading battleground between the ruling BJP and a resurgent Congress.
Mallikarjun Kharge faces the challenge of helping his son Priyank Kharge to retain the constituency of Chittapur and also show that he still has hold over the entire Kalyana Karnataka region, earlier called Hyderabad Karnataka.
Naturally, the stage is set for a showdown between the Congress and the BJP in many constituencies, including Kalaburagi, Bidar, Raichur, and Bellary.
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With a crop of party rebels showing up ahead of the May 10 elections, it is increasingly evident that Kalyana Karnataka may change the political image of Karnataka to some extent.
For Kharge, who has been elected MLA or MP a total of 10 times and has served in different positions in the Karnataka Congress and state governments before grasping the Congress presidency, the Karnataka elections are widely seen as a huge challenge.
And since he lost the 2019 election to the BJP from Kalaburagi Lok Sabha constituency, he has to ensure that the sprawling Kalyana Karnataka region — home to eight districts — heavily votes for the Congress this time.
In well-attended campaign rallies, Kharge tells supporters that the time has come to throw out the “corrupt BJP government” out of Karnataka and help the Congress to return to power.
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Being a Dalit leader, he must also ensure that all Dalits rally under one banner and vote en masse for the Congress. Across the region, people told The Federal that the senior Kharge remains popular.
The BJP in Karnataka is eyeing the traditional Congress vote bank of Right (Bala Kai) Dalits besides looking to strengthen its vote base of the Left (Eda Kai) Dalits.
Scheduled Castes in Karnataka are broadly divided into four types — right-hand and left-hand Dalits, sociologically considered “untouchable”; a “touchable” section that includes Bhovis and Lambanis; and “others”, which are miniscule sections within the Dalit community. Hierarchically, the left-hand Dalits (including Madigas) are considered lower than the right-hand Dalits (which includes sub-castes like the Holeyas).
The Basavaraj Bommai government hiked reservations for Scheduled Castes from 15 to 17 per cent and Scheduled Tribes from 3 to 7 per cent. This is yet to be implemented officially as the matter is in court.
The division of left-hand and right-hand Dalits towards BJP and Congress has been helping the former, forcing the Congress to lose seats in several constituencies.
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“Kharge has conducted several rounds of meetings with all sub-sects of Dalit communities and sought their unity for their growth. He has been mobilising them for the Congress,” said Sangappa Jai Bhim, a Dalit Sangharsh Samiti leader in Kalaburagi town.
Another Dalit activist, Rajanna Gannappanavar, of Kunagol village said: “A Dalit leader from Karnataka reaching such heights in the Congress has to be supported by our community as a whole.”
But yet another Dalit leader, Veranna Babbaligar of Bidar, said most Congress candidates in these elections are ‘Right Dalits’ and importance needed to be given to ‘Left’ Dalits too.
Ganganna Sunanavar, a Dalit activist in Chittapur constituency, pointed out to The Federal how Mallikarjun Kharge was denied the chief minister’s post in Karnataka in 2004 but remained loyal to the grand old party.
Kharge, like BJP, also faces a challenge from the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S).
Some strong candidates denied party ticket are contesting from the JD-S. The JD-S has two MLAs in Raichur district and one MLA each in Bidar and Yadgir districts.
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JD-S leader and former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy has appealed to voters to give a legislative majority to his party at least once. An aggressive JD-S is bound to split the Congress votes, which will help BJP, warned Bhimanna Sangala, a Dalit leader of Kalaburgi.
The BJP has won several seats in Kalyana Karnataka. Besides the assembly contest, BJP’s Umesh Jadhav defeated Mallikarjun Kharge by around one lakh votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
The May 10 battle has given Kharge a chance to forget the bitterness of defeat and seek revenge. For him, this election is a matter of huge prestige. Congress sources say he has formulated a winning strategy.
The BJP says that development will continue only if the party retains power in Karnataka. The state government organized Kalyana Karnataka Utsav and Bidar Utsav. But the Congress says attention should have been focussed on prioritizing infrastructure and poverty alleviation, not jamborees.
Chittapur MLA and senior Kharge’s son Priyank Kharge, who is also the KPCC media coordinator, has been constantly exposing the BJP government’s scams. To take him on, the BJP has fielded a history sheeter, Manikant Rathoda, to somehow defeat Priyank Kharge.
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However, the Kharges have succeeded in bringing a rebel candidate of the BJP to the Congress fold and have made him work against Rathoda.
The BJP is publicising the annual grant of Rs 5,000 crore to the Kalyan Karnataka Regional Development Board (KKRDB). It says welfare is important for the development of Karnataka.
Mallikarjun Kharge says the Congress will create a special status for this region. And, all said and done, no one is taking Kharge, now over 80 years old, lightly.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP President JP Nadda have been repeatedly visiting Bidar and Kalaburagi districts for the past three months in a bid to weaken Kharge’s hold in the region.
Modi symbolically handed over the property rights certificates to the Lambani community in Kalaburagi in January. In March, Shah visited Bidar twice. Also, Nadda went to Kalaburagi to interact with booth-level BJP activists in January. He was again in Bidar last week.
Naturally, everyone in the region eagerly awaits May 10.