Kharge as face is INDIA’s gain

Kharge as face is INDIA’s gain

The INDIA bloc finally has a face. It was agreed upon at a meeting in Delhi Saturday to appoint Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge as chairman of the bloc, a proposal first mooted by West Bengal chief minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal. Kharge’s elevation coincides with Congress MP Rahul Gandhi embarking on his east-west Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra from Manipur Sunday. For the next 66 days, Gandhi will be on the road, travelling 6,700 km across 15 states, including the Hindi heartland states of Bihar and UP, West Bengal, Assam and Maharashtra, covering 100 Lok Sabha and 337 assembly seats. The yatra, set to energise cadres, will also test the party’s relations with its INDIA partners, who are unlikely to be greatly excited about a Congress revival in their backyard.

Mallikarjun Kharge(ANI)

However, Rahul Gandhi’s yatra should open up the space for Kharge to engage freely with allies; many Opposition leaders, evidently, prefer the octogenarian and accommodating Congressman to direct the complicated task of negotiating seat-sharing and other tricky aspects ahead of the impending general elections. Many also believe that Kharge, with his vast ministerial experience, has the gravitas to stand up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose charisma is the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s biggest asset. Kharge also has an advantage that no other INDIA leader has – his identity as a Dalit. Though Kharge has been reluctant to emphasise his caste – he has repeatedly said that all through his political life he has privileged his profile of a Congressman over that of his Dalit identity – it is likely to come to the fore as elections near. Both Banerjee and Kejriwal highlighted Kharge’s Dalit identity as a potential game-changer when they mooted his name to lead INDIA. With the BSP in decline and Mayawati unwilling to declare where she stands vis-a-vis the NDA, Kharge could be an enticing proposition for Dalit voters – the Scheduled Castes make over 16% of India’s population, and constitute an even larger percentage of the electorate in UP, West Bengal, Punjab, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh.

It remains to be seen if the Congress wants Kharge to assume a larger public profile that may overshadow that of the Gandhis. Also, since the party – and INDIA – is keen to highlight OBC-centric politics in a bid to checkmate the BJP’s Hindutva, soon to be further strengthened by the opening of the Ram Mandir, the emphasis on a Dalit face will call for political nuance, a quality the INDIA bloc does not have in abundance. How Kharge negotiates these contradictions will influence the electoral prospects of INDIA.

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