The rise and rise of Mallikarjun Kharge

New Delhi: Could Mallikarjun Kharge be Sonia’s pick for MMS –2? Seems like it. Two months before the 17th Lok Sabha election is to take place there is immense speculation as to who could be the Opposition’s pick for Prime Minister if the BJP or NDA is not able to form the government. In other words, Modi versus who?

Quite obviously the claimant for that post would be the leader of the largest unit of the coalition that forms after the results are declared. But as past instances have shown that is not necessarily who becomes Prime Minister. We have seen I.K. Gujral, Deve Gowda and Chandrashekar become Prime Ministers even though they were not the choices of the largest political unit. The catch here is that they need ‘outside support’ from either the Congress party or one or more parties who are not ready to be part of a coalition government but do not mind propping up a government so as to keep the BJP out of office.

While the BJP has made it clear that the allies who wish to be part of the NDA have to accept Narendra Modi as Prime Minister once again and the BJP’s agenda as the common minimum programme, the Opposition has no such agenda that it plans to enforce.

The two or three gathbandhans that are being formed have no common minimum programme so far, let alone a Prime Minister candidate.

In fact, the leaders of the various units are making this flaw a virtue, explaining that lack of a single leader is not a flaw or cause for crisis. It is also not a necessity in the Parliamentary form of democracy that India follows, they reiterate.

From Arun Shourie to Yashwant Sinha, from Farooq Abdullah to Arvind Kejriwal the plea from the podium at Brigade Ground Kolkata was to defeat Modi-Shah duo at great sacrifice to personal ambitions.

If the NDA does not get the majority in the 2019 general elections anyone from that podium could be the next prime minister of India. Yes, even Jignesh Mevani or Hardik Patel.

But an interesting candidate could be the low profile guy who was hanging around in the background that afternoon; whose role was of an emissary of the Gandhi family and/or the Congress party.

The 76-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge is more than just a leader of the INC in the Lok Sabha. He has the confidence of the first family of the party; he is not overly ambitious in that you won’t see him holding dozens of press briefings at the headquarters in Delhi nor does he play the Lutyen’s Delhi game of planting stories on entrenched columnists. He has never shown overarching ambition to become Chief Minister in his home state of Karnataka though he is the senior most leader of the party there.

Kharge who began his political career as a labour union leader has won Assembly elections for a record nine consecutive terms. In 2014 he bucked the Modi wave and was elected to the Lok Sabha from Gulbarga.

Kharge was pitched as a Chief Minister probable in Karnataka elections of 2017 with his Dalit background being a possible factor going in his favour besides his seniority.

But Kharge is reported to have told journalists then that he would be happy if while selection his seniority and not caste would be the only factor. However, the sequence of events after the results was declared made it impossible for the Congress to catapult either Kharge or anyone else into the CM post. Ever since Kharge has, by and large, stayed out of the contentious coalition politics of Karnataka, letting D.K. Shivakumar and others handle the messy situation there. He is back at the centre, working in close yet low profile coordination with Gandhi and the coterie that decides on coalition partners.

Though Sonia Gandhi is no longer the Congress president, she still clearly is the go-to person for senior leaders in the party. She has tremendous respect for Kharge’s political acumen and is also aware of his non-aggressive approach to vaulting ambitions in the younger generation of Congressmen and the cross-currents in the older generation. Though he is not as completely passive as Dr Manmohan Singh in political matters, he is quite similar. Kharge is more in Narasimha Rao’s mode before Rao was chosen as Prime Minister and went on to become non-pliable for the family.

Kharge’s Dalit origins, seniority, experience and good relations with parliamentarians of all political parties make him an ideal candidate for the Congress party to pick, if and that is a big IF, Rahul Gandhi is not keen on the job or not acceptable as PM candidate for the coalition that might have to be formed with Congress in majority. Again that is if, repeat another IF, the 272 marks is not crossed by the NDA.