A Gandhi family loyalist, Mallikarjun Kharge faces multiple challenges in new role as Congress chief

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Mallikarjun Kharge, new leader elected to head Congress Party. Photo: Twitter @Kharge

New Delhi : Mallikarjun Kharge, who was on Wednesday elected the first Congress chief outside the Nehru-Gandhi family in 24 years, has his task cut out as the party faces several electoral and organisational challenges.

A man of vast organisational and administrative experience, Kharge entered the electoral fray for the party’s top post after Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot opted against contesting. Kharge, 80, was seen as the “establishment’s candidate” against Shashi Tharoor and polled 7,897 votes against 1072 received by his rival.

A leader who has risen from the grassroots, Kharge belongs to the Dalit community and will the second leader from Karnataka to hold the top party post after S Nijalingappa became the Congress president in 1968.

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In over five decades experience in active politics, Kharge has been a union minister, Congress leader in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha and has held several portfolios in Karnataka where he was MLA nine times.

A combative, articulate and accessible politician who is comfortable both in Hindi and English, Kharge has been a strong critic of the BJP-led government.

He faces major challenges to work out strategies in terms of Congress revival in Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as also in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. The Congress has seen an erosion in its base in some other states including in the northeast. AAP is also seeking to emerge as a challenger in some states.

While Kharge’s immediate challenges are the assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat which will go the polls later this year, several other states including his home state Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will go the polls next year before the crucial battle in the 2024 general election.

Many senior party leaders have left Congress in recent months and years and the Congress debacle in Punjab and Uttarakhand assembly polls earlier this year has been blamed on the choices party leadership made in these states.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who is on Bharat Jodo Yatra, indicated that Kharge will decide his role.

“I can’t comment on Congress President’s role, that’s for Mr Kharge to comment on. The President will decide what my role is…and where I will be deployed ask Khargeji, Soniaji,” he said.

Kharge, a loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi family, has said he will implement the party’s Udaipur Declaration sincerely. The party under his leadership will also have to calibrate its strategy for the larger opposition unity for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and to take on the BJP’s formidable “election machine”.

The party will also have to take a call on the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate in view of the experience of its past two Lok Sabha polls where it failed to capture the imagination of people.

Kharge will take over as party chief from Sonia Gandhi, who was serving as interim chief after Rahul Gandhi stepped down following the party’s debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Sonia Gandhi had earlier steered the party for 19 years and played a pivotal role in the formation of two UPA governments.

A former union minister of Labour and Railways, Kharge resigned as Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha to contest the presidential polls in accordance with the one person, one post norm.

Born on July 21, 1942, Kharge was active in student politics and was general secretary in 1964-65 of the Students Union in Government Arts and Science College in Gulbarga.

He was vice president of the Students Union Law College, Gulbarga, in 1966-67 and became president of the Gulbarga City Congress Committee in 1969.

Kharge served as MLA in Karnataka nine times between 1972 and 2009 and held several portfolios as minister including education, revenue, rural development and large and medium industry, transport and water resources.

He was president of Karnataka Congress from 2005 to 2008 and also served as Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly from 1996-99 and 2008-09.

He was elected to Lok Sabha in 2009 and 2014 and elected to Rajya Sabha in 2020. As Leader of Congress in the Lok Sabha, he raised various issues vociferously.
Kharge was seen as a top contender for the CM post in Karnataka several times but never got the role. Kharge did not protest and continued to work as a disciplined party worker.
Congress leaders said Kharge will be the second Dalit president in the party’s long history.

Kharge is credited with several initiatives in his ministerial tenures. As Union Minister he revamped the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, extended insurance and benefits for workers in both organised and unorganised sectors and ESIC hospitals throughout the country were modernized.

As Railway Minister, he gave emphasis to funding projects in the northeastern states in railway budget and initiated reforms such as creation of Rail Tariff Regulatroy Authority.
With Kharge’s election as the new party chief, the Congress will seek to blunt the BJP’s attack on it over “family-oriented politics”

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