With Kharge at helm, Congress looks to gain political capital in Karnataka
The veteran leader is also expected to use his good offices in unifying the faction-ridden party in the state, ahead of Assembly elections just six months away.
The political impact of Mallikarjun Kharge's election to the post of Congress President is being keenly watched in his poll-bound home state of Karnataka with the party hoping to reap dividends to consolidate its Dalit vote base. The veteran leader is also expected to use his good offices in unifying the faction-ridden party in the state, ahead of Assembly elections just six months away. Kharge is only the second leader, after Jagjivan Ram, to be the Congress President from the Dalit community, which constitutes about 24 per cent of the population across more than 100 caste groups in the state.
According to some party insiders and political observers, Congress' strong support base among Dalits has shrunk over the years, due to various factors including a section of it shifting towards BJP in recent years, attracted by the strong leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his push for a development agenda. Also, the grand old party's inability to resolve the differences between left and right sects among the Dalits, concerning internal reservation, has also led to it losing the support of the Left, who have considerable presence in the state. Kharge belongs to the Dalit right, and his ability to win over the left, who have by and large moved towards the BJP, is crucial, and will determine whether things will turn in favour of the Congress or not, political analysts say. There is anger among a large section of the community, over the fact that Congress, which enjoyed their support for long, did not make a Dalit as the state's Chief Minister.
Kharge himself had lost out from the chance of becoming the Chief Minister, after having come very close to it, a couple of times. Political analyst A Narayana from Azim Premji University said, "Overall, it (Kharge's elevation) is an advantage for the Congress (in Karnataka), but to what extent it will turn into an electoral or political capital, we do not know and have to see." Noting that Dalits harbour "a little bit" of anger against the Congress which sort of affected its prospects last time (in 2018 polls), he said there is still a feeling in the community that they were not given their due. "Ultimately, that dissatisfaction will be addressed only when a Dalit becomes the CM, but it is a distant possibility, given the political realities of the state today...In the meantime, to address this discontent to an extent, it seems to be a good argument for the Congress to say that the top post of the party has been given to a Dalit, and we respect the Dalit sentiments," he added. Further, pointing out that in Karnataka, Congress' problem with Dalits is a more specific one, where the left sect of the community is angry with the party more than the right, Narayana said it remains to be seen if the elevation of Kharge, a Dalit on the right will help the party to placate the other side. "It depends on how much they (Congress) try to leverage, whether Kharge will make any impact in that direction, and how they address the discontent that the left wing has particularly regarding the implementation of the Sadashiva Commission report among other things," he added.
The Justice A J Sadashiva Inquiry Commission, which looked into methods of equitable distribution of reservation facilities among Scheduled Castes (SCs), had recommended internal reservation among the castes by broadly reclassifying all the 101 castes into four groups. Senior Congress leader and former Chairman of Legislative Council V R Sudarshan said Kharge becoming the Congress President is a matter of pride for Karnataka and it will certainly strengthen the party affairs in the state, both politically and socially. He said, "It is an opportunity to consolidate (Dalits) in favour of the party... However, Kharge personally has never played his Dalit identity card, even when there was a circumstance for him to become the CM... He has always been a committed Congressman and gone by his performance and loyalty."
With Kharge's elevation, there are also talks in political circles as to whether it would create one more 'power centre' within the Karnataka Congress which is deeply divided, and amid growing political one-upmanship between state President D K Shivakumar and Legislature Party leader Siddaramaiah, who are nursing chief ministerial ambitions. Amid this situation, there are talks whether the new AICC chief will be able to rein in all the factions and unite the party for the elections. There are also discussions in the party, whether it will be 'disadvantage' for Siddaramaiah (who had joined the Congress from JDS) with Kharge at the helm as his preference may be towards old-time party loyalists on matters relating to ticket distribution and leaders among others. However, Narayana responding to this said, "Yes, there will be another power centre in Karnataka, but will it affect the possibility of Siddaramaiah becoming or not becoming CM, I don't think so, because Kharge is appointed keeping in mind the 2024 (Lok Sabha) election."