IN THE run-up to the election of the veteran Mallikarjun Kharge as the president of the Congress this week, some BJP leaders suggested that his victory will result in the emergence of a third faction in the Congress in Karnataka.
Apart from the Siddaramaiah (former Congress CM and Leader of Opposition) faction and the D K Shivakumar (Karnataka PCC chief) faction, there would now also be a Kharge faction, the BJP’s state in-charge for Karnataka, Arun Singh, said at a Jana Sankalpa rally of the party on October 16 in the Dharwad region of the state.
While that remains to be seen, the Congress in the state has mixed feelings over the re-emergence of Kharge — a Karnataka CM candidate in 2008 and 2013 — as a power centre in the party after over a decade in central politics.
Many seem to see Kharge — with his vast knowledge of Karnataka politics, his 40 years of experience therein, and his familiarity with the footsoldiers of the party in the 224 Assembly constituencies in the state — playing the role of a buffer between the Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar factions and preventing the Congress from imploding under the weight of internal rivalries in the 2023 Assembly elections.
But others see Kharge posing a threat to the primacy established in the Karnataka Congress by the leader of the Congress Legislature Party (Siddaramaiah) since 2013 and by the KPCC president (Shivakumar) since his appointment in 2020. The election of Kharge as the national president of the All India Congress Committee is bound to “make the big two in Karnataka nervous”, said a mid-level Congress leader and former state legislator.
The rivalry between Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar is the Congress’s biggest concern right now, and could come to a head during candidate selection in 2023.
On the face of it, Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar have not shown any signs of nervousness, and have been magnanimous in welcoming the new Congress president.
Siddaramaiah described Kharge’s victory on October 19 as a proud moment for all Kannadigas, and said Kharge’s “experience, commitment and insights will drive the Congress in the right direction”.
Shivakumar’s reaction was almost the same. “With his (Kharge’s) vast experience as a leader, I am sure he will add value and take the party to newer heights. A proud moment for us Kannadigas as Sri Kharge is quite attached to his grassroots,” he said.
The most enthused are the leaders of the party who are 20 to 30 years younger than the 80-year-old new Congress president, who see his election as a boon – especially given that the Assembly elections are barely six months away. A Congress leader lists his attributes, including the fact that he has risen from being a Youth Congress leader in 1969, as well as “integrity, commitment, simplicity, loyalty, patience”.
“Khargeji knows everyone in the Karnataka unit of the party in and out. He knows the social composition of the state, the political equations in every corner. He has his own network on the field, unlike previous leaders. This will be beneficial to the party and prevent favoritism and mistakes in candidate selection,” another mid-level Congress leader said.
Another leader is hopeful of the emergence of Kharge “bringing down differences, rather than increasing them”. “Everyone will try to work for the party, and this will result in political gains.” As a former MP added: “The Congress’s national president cannot have a faction of his own in a state unit. It will be noticed immediately by the high command… In a democratic organisation, there will be internal differences, ideological differences, but that does not mean that there is no unity. If Khargeji takes sides, it will send the wrong message in other states.”
As per the Congress leader, Kharge also has the advantage of time. With Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat polls preceding Karnataka’s, he said, “Khargeji could establish himself as a national Congress leader to be reckoned with ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.”
Among the other big gains Congress leaders expect is the possibility of Scheduled Caste votes consolidating behind the party in the state on account of Kharge’s stature as Karnataka’s tallest Dalit leader.
Some leaders are enthused about finally having someone at the centre whom they could have access to. A Congress leader from the Bengaluru region talked about how they have struggled in recent years to have the ear of the national leadership.
A Congress worker pointed out that Kharge’s election followed close on the heels of the high of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra in Karnataka. “The combination of Kharge’s election, the Yatra and the anti-incumbency against the BJP government in Karnataka will result in a 2-3% swing of vote share in favour of the Congress,” the worker said.
There are, however, sceptics who believe the Congress may be too optimistic about Kharge’s leadership. A former legislator, who suggested that Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar might be having jitters about Kharge’s election, said: “Kharge has never been known to be a good organiser. He is a good parliamentarian, he is a family loyalist and he is not a risk taker. The Congress has taken a safe bet with him.”
The former legislator is not too optimistic about the Dalit support either. “The section of the Dalit community (to which Kharge belongs) is already with the Congress, and there can only be a marginal increase in SC support from the appointment of Kharge.”
The leader adds that it will all come down finally to candidate selection for 2023. And Kharge’s record is not too rosy on that account. Some Congress leaders believe part of the reason the party lost in the 2008 Assembly polls in Karnataka was the bad candidate selection on some seats by Kharge as the state chief, on account of “wrong advice”.