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Sanatana Dharma Row: Priyank Kharge and the Rise of an Outspoken Congress Leader

"Any religion that does not promote equality ... is not a religion according to me," Priyank Kharge said.

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Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) minister Udhayanidhi Stalin's call to eradicate 'Santana Dharma' during an event on Saturday, 2 September, has left many – across alliances and party lines – rattled. 

But no one, perhaps, has come out in support of him with as much conviction and clarity as Karnataka Information Technology-Biotechnology (IT-BT) minister and a fellow 'INDIA' bloc leader, Priyank Kharge.

"Any religion that does not promote equality, any religion that doesn't ensure that you have the dignity of being a human being is not a religion, according to me. So it is as good as a disease," Priyank, the son of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, said on Monday, 4 September.

In fact, the Congress leader's statement comes on the heels of his own party taking a diplomatic stance on Udhayanidhi's statement.

"Our view is clear. 'Sarva Dharma Samabhava' (respect for all religions) is the Congress' ideology. Every political party has the freedom to tell their views….We are respecting everybody's beliefs…" said party general secretary KC Venugopal.

Several other Congress leaders as well as allies of the 'INDIA' bloc disagreed with Udhayanidhi – and said he must refrain from attacking another religion.

So, why was Priyank's stance so distinct? Does his statement mark the rise of a young, outspoken leader in the Karnataka Congress? 

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The Rise of a Vocal Leader

Like his father, 44-year-old Priyank rose through the ranks of the Congress party – he joined the National Students' Union of India in 1998 and served as the Karnataka Pradesh Youth Congress (KPYC) general secretary from 2007 to 2011 before becoming its vice-president.

A three-time MLA from Chittapur constituency in Gulbarga, Priyank – at the age of 38 – became the youngest minister to be sworn into then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's cabinet in 2016. He subsequently became the Social Welfare minister in the coalition government headed by HD Kumaraswamy.

In addition to IT-BT, he now holds the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (RDPR) portfolio in the Siddaramaiah 2.0 cabinet.

"In his career as a Congress leader, Priyank has never been as vocal as he is today," remarked Chandan Gowda, Ramakrishna Hegde Chair Professor at ISEC, Bengaluru.

Another case in point is that shortly after the Congress' victory in the state in May this year, Priyank had said that the Karnataka government would ban the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) if "it disturbs peace" – triggering a massive backlash.

"He is a lot more confident or aggressive – depending on how you want to read it – than he has ever been before. This might partly be due to the fact that his father is heading the Congress, which gives him a certain kind of security and invulnerability. He can speak his mind without fearing reprimand from the high command or from local leaders."
Prof Chandan Gowda to The Quint

"It is also partly because he wants to grow as a leader, which means you have to be vocal and articulate on where you stand on larger issues," he added.

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Speaking to The Quint, political journalist Naheed Ataulla commented that Priyank's rise was influenced by his father to some extent, but "he has also managed to make a name for himself."

"He has had some influence from his father, which is most likely why he became a minister in 2016. This may also be why in this Siddaramaiah government, too, he was named a minister in the first portfolio list, which only had the names of eight MLAs," she added. 

"But Priyank has something else to offer that a lot of seniors don't – he embraces technology and makes the best use of social media. He was and is still a part of the Congress' campaigns online," she said.

'A Leader Who Is Open to New Ideas'

The Karnataka government recently came up with a proposal to create a fact-checking unit to combat fake news in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls – a move that was called out by the Editors' Guild of India (EGI). 

Priyank, the IT-BT Minister, had said that "posts and reports that are tagged as fake by the fact-checking unit will be taken down" and that "if required, the government can also take penal measures under relevant provisions of the IPC."

The EGI, in a statement, had said:

"While admittedly there is a problem of misinformation and fake news, especially in the online space, efforts to check such content have to be by independent bodies that are not under the sole purview of the government, lest they become tools to clamp down on voices of dissent."

But Priyank was prompt in responding to the EGI on X (formerly Twitter), saying that the fact-checking unit would be "apolitical" and would establish "independent bodies that will be enlisted to assist us in combatting fake news and misinformation."

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While the modalities of the fact-checking unit are still under purview, political experts said that his response goes to show "he has a voice of his own."

"Priyank has an open and receptive mind and is up to date about the innovations that are happening around us. We have seen several IT-BT ministers in the past, but most of them have not been able to keep themselves abreast about these things," Ataulla said.

Considering he also handles the RDPR Department, Priyank's views on tech appear to extend beyond the urban boundaries of Bengaluru. In a recent interview with South First, he had said:

"We have formed the Karnataka Digital Economy Mission that has been given the sole responsibility to figure out what skills-sets are required beyond Bengaluru ... Belagavi has good potential for aerospace. Kalaburagi can have small manufacturing units. Mangaluru has great potential for the animation and IT services sector. Perhaps biotechnology can be pushed a little outside Bengaluru. Kolar is already emerging as a manufacturing hub."

The Face of Young Dalit Leadership?

A Buddhist and Ambedkarite like his father, Priyank is undoubtedly one of the prominent young Dalit leaders in the Karnataka Congress – the senior leaders being his own father Mallikarjun Kharge and Karnataka Home Minister G Parameswara.

In fact, Kharge, too, is known to be critical of the Sanatana Dharma and has often accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the RSS of deepening caste divides. 

At the same time, for a politician like Kharge, the party comes first. "A Congressman first, Mallikarjun Kharge is not known to assert his Dalit identity," said Prof Gowda.

But Priyank's strong statement in support of Udhayanidhi's remark against Sanatana Dharma shows him being more vocal on issues of caste injustice, he pointed out.

"It is important to note that his remarks made a larger objection to any religion that practices inequality and were not narrowly identitarian," he added.

On pragmatic grounds, however, Priyank's outspokenness might be causing discomfort to local leaders.

"It's one thing to be outspoken, it's another to be a popular leader. Will Priyank’s outspokenness enhance his popular appeal? Will it endear him to the party? These questions will be answered over time," Prof Gowda pointed out.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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