In 2004, the-then chief minister SM Krishna-led Congress lost the Karnataka assembly elections miserably. The mandate was badly fractured. The ball was in the court of Janata Dal (Secular) supremo and former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda. The Congress high command decided to forge an alliance with the JD(S) to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out. It chose Dharam Narayan Singh as the chief minister. M Mallikarjun Kharge, who was number two in SM Krishna’s government, was naturally upset. His supporters urged him to convey his displeasure to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and not to accept the ministerial berth offered to him in the state.
But Kharge dismissed their suggestions, claiming that he never went against the party decision and he would be the last person to embarrass the Gandhi family. He quietly accepted the ministerial berth in his closest friend Dharam Singh’s government and told his close circles that his time would come one day.
In 2008, the Congress high command went to the assembly elections under Kharge’s leadership. It was his best chance to be the CM of Karnataka. But the Congress lost to the BS Yediyurappa-led BJP and once again he had to sit in the opposition. Many of his colleagues blamed him for the loss and Kharge kept quiet.
Kharge is a top-ranking leader in Karnataka politics. A Dalit, the son of a mill worker from the once-extremely backward Gulbarga is a self-made man. In the last 49 years, since his first win in the 1972 assembly elections, Kharge has always remained loyal to the Gandhi family, in and out of power. People who have seen him for decades say he could rise in the party hierarchy because of loyalty, patience, vast administrative experience and his ability to grasp any situation.
They also reveal that his loyalty towards the Gandhi family is non-negotiable.
A reserved man in private life, Kharge gets angry when people refer to him as a Dalit leader. “I am a Dalit. That is true. But, I have reached here because of my caliber and hard work. Every caste and religion has supported me. Call me a Congress leader, people’s leader. Not just a Dalit leader. I consider it an insult. I deserve something big because I am capable, not because I am Dalit,” he has said many times in the past.
When Kharge was made Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014, national media merely attributed it to his caste. Some Lutyens’ Delhi mediapersons and durbaris had even mocked his elevation, treating him with disdain. But a tenacious and seasoned Kharge had proved all of them wrong by ably taking on the Modi government in the Lok Sabha, earning even the Prime Minister’s compliments for his conduct in the House. His performance had also impressed both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
A lawyer by education, a 27-year-old Kharge first entered the Karnataka assembly in 1972. The then chief minister D Devaraj Urs was impressed by the young Scheduled Caste MLA’s abilities and made him a minister. The top leaders of Karnataka, SM Krishna, S Bangarappa, M Veerappa Moily, KH Ranganath, MY Ghorpade, and many others, were his cabinet colleagues then. Since 1972, Kharge had been a minister in every Congress government in Karnataka till he left for New Delhi to try his luck in national politics. It speaks volumes about his stature and importance within the party.
Kharge was a junior leader of the Karnataka Congress during the Indira Gandhi years. He became a mid-level leader during the Rajiv Gandhi days and emerged as a top-ranking leader after the 1990s.
His unwavering faith in the Gandhi family has helped him sail through during the difficult times in his career.
“In the last 50 years, many tried to make him say something nasty about the Gandhi family. But he has always kept quiet, refusing to be a part of intra-party intrigues. That has helped him a lot,” said a senior Congress leader from Karnataka.
A good administrator, Kharge has handled various responsibilities both in the state and at the Centre, including that of state Congress president, leader of the opposition, cabinet minister with important portfolios, union cabinet minister, Congress Working Committee member, party general secretary, to name a few.
When the party high command decided to draft in JD(S) leader Siddaramaiah in 2006, fully knowing that it would eclipse his chief ministerial chances one day, Kharge accepted that decision. To make space for Siddaramaiah, Kharge was sent to New Delhi in 2009. Though not interested to relocate initially, he quietly accepted the party decision. His performance as labour and employment minister in the UPA2 government won him all- round praise, making him a national leader.
A rationalist who firmly believes in the ideals of Buddha and Ambedkar, Kharge is quite radical in his thoughts. But he is aware of the influence religion and caste have over politics and keeps his beliefs to himself.
His critics call him a status-quoist. His admirers call him a quiet worker who won’t cross the Lakshman Rekha under any circumstances.
Kharge won nine straight assembly elections between 1972 and 2008 and won two consecutive Lok Sabha elections after that.
He suffered his first defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and a year after the shocking loss was nominated to the Rajya Sabha.
The Gandhi family, which places loyalty above everything else, has now made him Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, placing a huge responsibility on his shoulders. Kharge feels he is capable of handling that job. He feels loyalty is just one of the many factors.
The coveted post of the chief minister of Karnataka has eluded Kharge for decades. With the emergence of new, much- younger leaders in the state, that may always remain a dream for him. A practical politician, Kharge knows that well.