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The Unparalleled Role Of Mallikarjun Kharge In Congress' Karnataka Victory

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge played a key role in keeping the party united, and wooing Dalit voters.

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The Congress party’s victory in Karnataka has rekindled the question of who the next Chief Minister will be: Siddaramaiah or DK Shivakumar? Both the leaders have played an important role in the election campaign and time will tell who the high command chooses to elevate. However, there is a third leader without whose presence, Congress may have found it difficult to win: Mallikarjun Kharge.

The 82-year-old national president of the Congress party left no stone unturned in his home state, being active in both on-ground campaigning as well as strategising. Most importantly, Kharge’s presence was instrumental in making greater inroads among Dalit voters, and in keeping the party united.

Significant Rise In Congress' SC Seats Tally

Congress has won 21 of the 36 Scheduled Caste (SC) reserved seats and 14 of the 15 Scheduled Tribe (ST) reserved seats, up from the 12 SC and 8 ST seats it won in 2018.

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The BJP, on the other hand, reduced its tally of SC seats from 16 in 2018 to 12 this time and failed to win a single ST seat. This despite the tinkering the BJP government did with the reservations in the state—increasing SC reservation from 15 per cent to 17 per cent and ST reservation from 3 to 7 per cent ahead of the polls.

BJP’s strategic lapses not withstanding, Kharge was pivotal in Congress’ improved performance among the two communities, particularly the SCs. According to the India Today-Axis My India exit poll, the Congress secured 60 percent of the Dalit votes, a gain of 14 percentage points from the last election.

Kharge, one of the tallest Dalit leaders in the Congress, had played a key role in opening backchannel talks with the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS), which subsequently came out in vocal support of the party in April. This also came at a time when twelve factions of the DSS reunited after several years to take out a rally against “the BJP-RSS narrative”, thus emboldening the Congress.

Congress sources told The Quint that Kharge and his son Priyank, who retained his seat from Chittapur, were involved in continuous talks with the DSS for many months before the organisation expressed backing for the Congress.

Sources said that this time around, Kharge was closely involved in the ticket distribution process as well, ensuring that enough Dalits from both the left hand Dalits (LH) and right hand Dalits (RH) get represented. “He has always been closely involved in the Karnataka election campaigns, but the fact that this time he was speaking from the authority of the national party president, his word carried a lot more weight,” a Karnataka Congress member said.

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Kharge, despite being an MLA for 37 record years from 1972 to 2009 from Gurmitkal and then an MP from 2009 to 2019 from Gulbarga, was never given the opportunity to become the Karnataka CM. While many attributed this to his Dalit background and criticised the Congress for not elevating him to the CM post, Kharge himself has always shied away from branding himself as a ‘Dalit leader’.

When in 2018, the Congress was mulling over the prospect of making Kharge the CM, Siddaramaiah said that he won’t have a problem with a Dalit being made the CM. To this, Kharge responded that he should be considered for the CM post due to his seniority, not his caste. Earlier, in 2015, Kharge had said “In my long political career, I have never identified myself as a Dalit leader but rather as a Congress worker.”

Kharge being elected as the national Congress president, only the second Dalit president in the party history after Jagjivan Ram, is likely to have sent the right signals at the grassroot level in the state.

Non-Stop Rallies, Ground Presence

At 82, Kharge did over 40 rallies and press conferences across Karnataka ahead of the elections. This, despite the fact that unlike Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar, Kharge isn’t in the running for CM. “The party leadership is aware of his growing influence across Karnataka since he became party president and he was asked to be actively involved in all ground campaigning this year, despite now becoming a national leader,” a Congress leader said.

Kharge has been active in conducting rallies and meeting Congress’ district heads across the state for a few months now, and has arguably been the most visible face of the party’s campaign.

On the 6 May ‘mega rally’ by the Congress, Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Kharge held a joint rally in Hubbali, while Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar were away on their respective campaign trails. Sonia Gandhi, who has mostly stayed away from the Karnataka campaign, chose to limit her campaigning in the last week ahead of the polls, in about seven constituencies in Dharwad district. Sources told The Quint that the former party president made it a point to keep Kharge close in all her rallies.

Keeping the Leadership United

Kharge’s presence was also important in keeping the Congress boat steady.

At a time when DK Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah—both contenders for the post of CM—were expected to be at loggerheads ahead of the campaign, sources said that Kharge acted as a mediator and ensured that the two put a united front.

“His authority as not just a senior leader but now also as a leader of national stature meant he had the final word wherever there was any scope for even a minor dispute,” said another Karnataka Congress member.

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