February 13, 2021 2:03:22 am
The Congress on Friday nominated veteran leader Mallikarjun Kharge as the new Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha to succeed Ghulam Nabi Azad, who is retiring on February 15. The move, though expected, could further deepen fault lines within the grand old party. Seventy-eight year old Kharge had led the Congress in Lok Sabha between 2014 and 2019.
Talking to The Indian Express, Kharge said he was grateful to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi for reposing faith in him. “I will try to come up to their expectations as I have worked and done for five years in the Lower House…When I worked for five years in the Lower House and 10 years as CLP leader in the Karnataka Assembly…I took everyone along. I will try to come up to the expectation of the party, leaders and MPs,” he said.
Kharge, a two time Lok Sabha MP and nine-time MLA, had led the Congress in Lok Sabha in an aggressive fashion and had earned the respect of the leadership. A hard-boiled Congressman considered loyal to the Gandhi family, Kharge is one of the party’s prominent Dalit faces. He was also the Leader of the Opposition in Karnataka. In UPA’s second tenure, he held the portfolios of Labour and Railways. His elevation was on the cards when he was brought to Rajya Sabha last year after he suffered the first electoral setback in his political career in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
Kharge’s appointment, however, has not gone down well with a section of the party, especially the group of 23 leaders who had written a letter to Sonia Gandhi asking for “sweeping changes” in the party. These leaders, sources said, were particularly unhappy with the way a leader of Azad’s stature had been eased out of the Upper House. Some of the other MPs felt the party should have opted for a younger leader.
“The Congress seems to be digging itself into a deeper hole. In two months, three seats are going to fall vacant in Kerala. The Congress-led UDF can win one seat. But it is going to the Muslim League. I am told the Muslim League was agreeable to give the seat to the Congress if Azad was the candidate. But our central leaders were not keen…Azad commanded the respect of leaders across opposition,” a senior leader claimed.
On the choice of Azad’s successor, the 23 leaders did not appear to be on the same page either. Some of them argued former Finance Minister P Chidambaram would have been a better pick while a few others said incumbent Deputy Leader Anand Sharma should have the natural choice.
While Congress sources said there is no change in the leadership structure of the party in the Upper House, Kharge’s appointment has triggered several debates – one on the internal dynamics of the party and another on regional balance.
One of the 23 leaders said Sharma or Kapil Sibal may have been denied the post because they were signatories to the letter to Sonia Gandhi. “Both of them are in the doghouse because of the letter. But what about Chidambaram,” a leader said. “In Lok Sabha, Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdury and deputy leader Gaurav Gogoi are both from eastern India. In Rajya Sabha, we will now have a leader from South India….what message are we giving to the Hindi heartland,” one leader said.
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