From being ‘backbone’ of school hockey team to president of AICC: Mallikarjun Kharge’s journey

ByAnusha Ravi Sood

Published Oct 18, 2022 | 6:39 PMUpdatedOct 20, 2022 | 1:03 AM

Mallikarjun Kharge with Congress veteran leader Sonia Gandhi. File Photo. South First.

Veteran Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge was elected president of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) on Wednesday, 19 October. In an election that was intended to put Congress’ internal democracy on display, Kharge won in a landslide with 7,897 votes against Shashi Tharoor, who polled 1,072 votes. 416 votes were held invalid.

From student and labour union leader to Union labour minister, the “backbone” of his school’s hockey team to Congress’ Mr Dependable, from a child fleeing persecution to a leader who moved earth and heaven to ensure special status under Article 371J to Kalyana Karnataka, from a Dalit leader handpicked by Indira Gandhi to contest polls to missing the Karnataka chief minister’s post by a whisker, Mallikarjun Kharge’s life and politics has been a continuous, inspirational struggle.

South First spoke to Mallikarjun Kharge’s friends, classmates and family to bring you a glimpse of the man beyond the hues of politics.

From fight for survival to political giant

Nothing came easy to Mallikarjun Kharge. Not even survival. Kharge was barely five years old when he lost family members, including his mother and sister, to violence sparked by Razakars of Hyderabad. Kharge’s father, Mapanna Kharge, had to flee his hometown carrying young Mallikarjun Kharge.

“Fleeing from Bidar, Mapanna Kharge went to Pune before settling down in Kalaburagi. He was keen on ensuring Mallikarjun Kharge got a good education, but he was only a mill worker with no money. That is when he met Malkhaji Master who used to teach children of all mill workers, labourers in the locality free of cost. That was Mallikarjun Kharge’s first step towards education before going to a formal school. One must learn from Kharge the spirit of rising through adversities,” recalled Prof Eshwar Ingan, a Dalit rights activist and an associate of Kharge from Kalaburagi.

Tales of Kharge’s tough childhood are only matched by stories of his achievements in politics back home.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon. I lost my mother, sister, uncle, brother in Hyderabad during the Razakars movement. Only my father and I survived. He brought me up. He worked at a textile mill, sacrificed a lot,” Kharge told a group of AICC delegates in Andhra Pradesh, recounting how his father’s struggles inspired him to form unions, fight union elections.

Such was Kharge’s passion for elections — even at the college level — that his friends would come from other colleges just to watch him run an election campaign, deliver fiery speeches, and walk away victorious.

“He was my senior by four years in school. We went to different colleges later, but I would always go to his college to see him fight elections passionately. He would win elections, but also ensure his team members’ victory. In 1964, he won the student union election to become general secretary at the Government Law College and by 1969 he was Congress city unit president,” Narayan Rao Kale, Kharge’s friend of 48 years who still recalls each of his political milestones.

‘Solillada Saradara’

In 1972 Kharge, as he has recalled in several interviews, was asked by Indira Gandhi to contest Assembly elections. Since then, Kharge did not lose a single election till 2019, bringing him the popular moniker, Solillada Saradara (the chieftain who has never lost).

Mallikajun Kharge with wife Radhabai Kharge. (File photo. South First)

Mallikajun Kharge with wife Radhabai Kharge. (File photo/South First)

Having been elected as MLA nine times and Lok Sabha MP twice, Kharge lost, for the very first time, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. He was, however, elected as Rajya Sabha member by the party and made Leader of the Opposition in the Upper house.

“The high point in his career I would say was the opportunity to contest for AICC president post. How often can one contest for the top job of India’s oldest party?” Priyank Kharge, Mallikarjun Kharge’s son and KPCC Communication Cell chairperson pointed out.

“I wouldn’t call the 2019 election loss a low point, but he felt that in spite of all the good work he had done, people had fallen into a trap which they now regret,” he added.

As leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, Kharge’s tenure has come under severe scrutiny and harsh criticism, but he has maintained composure throughout.

“He has a steely resolve and maintains composure even in stormy situations. It was very evident during his stint as Karnataka’s home minister when the Cauvery riots broke out or when the Telgi stamp paper scam broke and, more importantly, when Dr Rajkumar was kidnapped,” Priyank Kharge recalled.

Loyalist with a steely resolve

The tone, vocabulary, language that has been used by Delhi-centric media over the last few weeks to describe Kharge has been largely condescending when not unkind.

Terms like “puppet candidate”, “rubber stamp”, “Gandhi proxy” have been carelessly thrown around to describe a Dalit leader who has risen from the grassroots — clearly, a price he is paying for his unflinching and unquestionable loyalty to the party.

Mallikarjun Kharge walking with Rahul Gandhi in Bharat Jodo Yatra in Ballari. (Twitter: Mallikarjun Kharge)

Mallikarjun Kharge walking with Rahul Gandhi in Bharat Jodo Yatra in Ballari. (Twitter: Mallikarjun Kharge)

“I am not afraid. When a man loses everything and devotes himself only to the party, he has no reason to be afraid. This is my background,” Kharge told AICC delegates on 8 October in Andhra.

Ask the people who know him from close quarters and the adjectives greatly defer from what the Delhi media has been using to describe Kharge — whose disinterest in the media limelight is often misconstrued as inadequacy.

“Even as student, he wouldn’t tolerate injustice. He has always been straightforward and doesn’t lie. He handled so many portfolios at the state and Centre but not once did he ever go to the House without studying. Even when party workers would come to him for projects, schemes or works, he would study the possibility but never lie to them,” Kale recalled.

“People of Kalyana Karnataka are thankful for his work, cutting across all lines,” said Dr Vikram Siddareddy, a prominent surgeon from Kalyana Karnataka.

“Article 371J has changed the landscape of opportunities for youngsters in this region. We have to remind ourselves that this was the time when the Congress didn’t have the numbers and was in alliance government. They didn’t have the majority to bring a Constitutional amendment, which needed a 2/3rd majority. Dr Kharge approached all parties, all MPs and political leaders across the country and mustered support for the amendment,” Dr Siddareddy noted.

Despite the BJP being the ruling party in Karnataka, even the website of Kalyana Karnataka Region Development Board (KKRDB) credits Kharge for his relentless efforts to bring Article 371 (J) into existence via an amendment to the Indian Constitution to accord special status to the six most backward districts of Karnataka.

Hockey, kabaddi, cricket and what not

It was on the last day of nomination filing for the AICC president poll that Kharge entered the fray. After much reluctance, he agreed to contest after being persuaded by the party. In his half-century-long association with the Congress, Kharge has not once rebelled or refused responsibility. His friends credit it to the spirit of teamwork that he displayed even as a child.

“He was a wonderful kabaddi player, but we were in the field hockey team together and went to competitions to Mysuru and Bengaluru as kids. He would always ask to play as a forward but we always made his play at the back. Despite that, he would still score goals and ensure we won. We would poke fun that he was at the back because he was the backbone of our team,” recalled T Linganna, Kharge’s school friend and teammate.

In the past Kharge has taken offence to being bracketed as just a Dalit leader, and has credited his hard work, and not his identity, for his success.

“Even as a student union leader he never took caste, religion or identity into consideration. He has always been secular, open to people from all walks of life. He had friends from all sections. This has helped him become a renowned leader,” Prof Eshwar added.

Now, as president of AICC, Kharge faces challenges within and outside the party.

Those around him believe the astute politician, learned policymaker, tactful conversationalist and fierce loyalist in Kharge is what Congress needs to bridge gaps, and take everyone along on the path of revival as it hopes to take on a powerful BJP.