Kharge’s rise in Congress leaves rivals anxious, from Karnataka to UP – The Federal

The alarm among rival parties such as BJP and BSP has to do with the the fact that Kharge is a Dalit, the community key to the outcome of polls in the two states
No sooner did Mallikarjun Kharge get elected to the post of Congress president than shockwaves went through rival parties’ ranks. And this is turning out to be so from Karnataka to Uttar Pradesh. 
The reason behind the alarm among the main adversaries of Congress is the fact that Kharge belongs to the Dalit community. This community of scheduled castes has a major share among the electorate in both these states. Elsewhere in the country too, it is not much different.
So, it is widely feared that Kharge as new Congress boss can well sway Dalit votes away from those holding power at the Centre and also in quite a few states. This can improve the grand old party’s fortunes in the next round of polls, both at the national and state levels, in the near future. 
Also read: Kharge’s win makes 3 Karnataka Congressmen happy, leaves BJP worried
It is more so since Dalits, for a long time in the past, have voted for the Congress through the better part of the country. But their loyalty to the waned of late as the BJP mixed faith and fantasy to create a new majoritarian dream laced with the glory of yore and the promise for its possible resurrection to the benefit of privileged and not-so-privileged castes and clans. This has virtually put the Congress in the cold, and it has been so for years now. 
The SC/ST factor
But with a new chief to helm the party, it may not be the same anymore. As the Congress is upbeat about Kharge’s ascent to the top of the party, the rival side is mulling over the kind of challenge he can pose. This became clear since the very next day of the Congress president’s election, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai increased the job quota for the Scheduled Castes from 15 to 17 per cent and for the Scheduled Tribes from 3 to 7 per cent.
Also read: Kharge: After 54 years, Cong gets its 2nd party president from Karnataka
To announce this, Bommai tweeted on Thursday (October 20): “Today, my cabinet has taken a historic decision of approving the ordinance on hiking the reservation for my brothers and sisters from SC/ST community, from 15% to 17% and 3% to 7%. This historic decision will bring light and shine into their lives and uplift them by providing adequate opportunity in education and employment.”
Karnataka has to go to polls next summer and the CM’s move betrays urgency — it is being made via an ordinance rather than through passing a bill in the House. In the tweet, he twice called it “historic” though, through most of his stint as CM, he and his party peers at the Centre mostly banked on selling what they thought to have gone wrong through India’s history. 
In their current poll campaigns in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, they flaunt their efforts to ‘correct’ the wrongs at Ayodhya and abrogate Article 370 that lingered for decades after Independence. Obviously, they need a bit more to woo the electorate in Karnataka before it goes to polls.
Kharge’s Dalit politics
This may also be more so since Kharge hails from Karnataka and has quite a bit of influence among his caste members in the state. But what is more important than polls in Karnataka and other states is the 2024 general election, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will seek another term in office.
This high-stake battle makes Dalit votes crucial for the BJP and Modi’s third term as Prime Minister. Though Kharge is a Dalit, he has seldom used his caste identity for political or electoral gains. Yet, he never allows Dalits to be taken for granted or their rights to be curtailed amid their continuing marginalisation. 
Once, in Parliament, he took umbrage at a remark made on Dr BR Ambedkar. Dr Ambedkar was a mool niwasi (original inhabitant) of this country, said Kharge. “We (Dalits) are the original inhabitants of this country, we are not the ones who will run away; we are the ones who defend this country.” The dominant Aryans, according to him, came from outside India. 
The cause of the marginalised
The point is that Kharge believes in rightful assertion of the cause of marginalised sections of the society. And this is being taken as a reason behind the beleaguered Congress’ move to place him in the top spot, though this came after a few twists and turns. As Congress president he can well be one of the key campaigners for the party in forthcoming elections. 
Speaking to reporters at his New Delhi residence soon after being elected on October 19, Kharge made scathing remarks about Modi, though without taking his name. In Hindi, he said: “We have to fight against fascist forces that under the cover of their communalism are attacking democratic institutions. The country cannot be left to the whims of a dictator.” Unmistakably, it was a warning sign for Congress’ opponents. 
Kharge can be a potential threat to the well-entrenched Dalit vote bank built over the years by his party’s rivals in places like politically crucial Uttar Pradesh. 
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati showed her discomfiture with the Congress move to make Kharge the party president. Within a day of 80-year-old Kharge’s election, Mayawati posted a couple of tweets, stating that the Congress, in its tough times, always tried to fall back upon Dalits whereas the party promoted and rewarded non-Dalits in its good times. The history of Congress shows contempt and neglect for even a Dalit icon like Dr BR Ambedkar, she said. “Dalits are like a sacrificial lamb for the Congress,” said her post.
Mayawati’s angst
Such strong reaction from the BSP supremo and former UP Chief Minister signifies the kind of uneasiness that the Congress’ Dalit card being played via Kharge is creating in UP. In the Assembly polls held in the state in February this year, Mayawati’s party got about 12 per cent votes, but it could wrest only a single Vidhan Sabha seat. Congress’ vote share was a paltry 2 per cent, with just two seats. 
Also read: With Khabri helming UP unit, Congress gets cracking on Dalit outreach
Only a few weeks ago, the Congress had appointed an old BSP hand and a Dalit from Bundelkhand region, Brijlal Khabri, as president of UP Congress unit. Two other former BSP leaders, Nassemudddin Siddiqi and Nakul Dubey, who had earlier joined Congress, were appointed by the party as zonal working presidents along with a few others who were entrusted to build or revive the party in specific regions of the state.
The poor show put up by the BSP in the last UP Vidhan Sabha polls was because most of Mayawati’s Dalit voters tried to defeat Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) by throwing their weight behind the BJP. The communal divide in UP turned out to be sharper than caste. This left both Congress and the BSP at great disadvantage.
Also read: No one big or small, all have to work together to strengthen Cong: Kharge
Moreover, the fact that Mayawati’s loyal Dalit votes could be swung to a national party like the BJP was also laid bare. So, to mend its fortunes in UP, Congress appears to be keen on winning back Dalit voters, besides others. Since Mayawati ran a low-key campaign during the Assembly polls in UP, there were fears that she was being influenced by the BJP, letting the Yogi Adityanath-led ruling party make a dent in her vote bank. 
But now, the recent shifting of loyalty by UP’s Dalit voters appears to be enticing the Congress. This is bound to alert both the BSP and the BJP, though the latter has been more sober than the former in its response to the rise of Kharge in the Congress.
Shifting sands of UP
In contrast, Modi congratulated Kharge over his elevation through a tweet on Wednesday. But given the vexed politics of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati’s fulminations against Congress may well amount to her showing a preference for the BJP vis-à-vis the Congress. And this can also have a warning of sorts for the new Congress president. More so, since among other things, Modi’s constituency Varanasi is in UP, as is Sonia Gandhi’s Raebareli.
Thus, Kharge is going to face his biggest challenge in UP and he has to tread more cautiously through the shifting sands of the most populous state than any other part of the country. And it is mainly so since Mayawati has already red-flagged the possibility of his making an attempt to wade through her territory in a bid to revive the grand old party at the cost of the BSP.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi-NCR. He tweets at  @abidshahjourno.)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)


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