TNIE caught up with veteran Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge in his home turf of Kalaburagi in Hyderabad-Karnataka, while he was on the last leg of his campaign. Up against a former protege, but more crucially against the formidable force of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election rhetoric, Kharge’s 12th outing at the hustings has certainly not been an easy one. Excerpts from his conversation with Santwana Bhattacharya:
This is being called one of the toughest elections you have faced in your entire career. You managed to hold your ground in 2014 against a massive Modi wave, but this time, post-Balakot, a different kind of undercurrent is at play. Has it almost become a direct Prime Minister versus Kharge contest in terms of narrative?
This is a kind of hype the media has created, building up ‘Kharge’s constituency’ as a big fight. I know my constituents, each and every segment. They are my people, for whom I have done genuine development work, not jumlas — schools, colleges, university, hospital, roads, though some more needs to be done. And then the 2012 amendment — 371J for the people of Hyderabad-Karnataka — which gives them reservations in jobs and education, and other facilities. I don’t think my people will disagree about the work done.
What has Mr Modi done for my region or state? How can it be a contest between him and me, he’s the PM of the country and I’m an MP... as for national security, we in the UPA had similar surgical strikes but we did not publicise it. The thinking was different then, we don’t think it’s advisable to go to town about surgical or precision strikes on Pakistan, thereby making the tactical strategy of our armed forces apparent to our enemy and the world. How does it help in securing our borders, the civilian population along it or the lives of our jawans in transit, like in Pulwama?
These are serious matters concerning a hostile neighbour. Should national security be trifled around with to score political points in an election? Is it not ridiculous to suggest one political dispensation is more concerned, tougher, and more nationalist than the other? The unity and integrity of India, the safety and security of its citizens, is equally important and dear to all of us — that cannot be a point of debate or sparring in an election.
Well, your current contest can be seen as a Congress vs Congress contest also! Your opponent, the BJP candidate Umesh Jadhav, was a Congress MLA till this February... the second rung of your party in your area joined the BJP because they felt there’s no scope of growth (or a future) for them in the party
This person you are talking about (Umesh Jadhav), do the people in the entire constituency even know who he is? He was an official in a government department under me.
His father, a staunch Congressman, was known to me. Dharma Singh (late Congress CM and prominent North Karnataka leader) and I decided to encourage him, thinking we must get people from the backward communities into the political system. And what he has done for personal ambition...if he finds greener pastures, he will leave the BJP also.
But he’s not the only one, others have also left. The accusation against you is of promoting dynasty
That’s another piece of propaganda. My son, Priyank (Kharge), was made a candidate in the Assembly election not by me but by the AICC committee. They chose him for reasons of representation, to increase faces from my community in the election — a community that has been with the Congress all through. Just check the development work he has done after being elected.…
But it did not end there. He was made a minister, over other senior leaders from the same part of Karnataka.
That was also for purposes of representation in the Cabinet. No one else fulfilled the criterion he did...that’s how a democratic setup works. You can’t leave a segment of the population unrepresented in the assembly or the government.
But Mr Modi has made dynastic politics an issue in the elections and the message has percolated down to the people
The Prime Minister spends most of his time abusing the Congress party. It’s an obsession with him. In electoral politics, you survive by the credible work you do, the political ideology you espouse and your connection with the people. A political family has the same rights as others to join politics and claim leadership positions. I came from a very humble background in the same town of Gulbarga, now Kalaburagi, to become a minister in the Centre, the Opposition leader in the Lok Sabha, that also happened in the Congress party! And I’m not the only one, many of us from the depressed classes, from a rural background, came into mainstream politics, gained national prominence through the Congress. Some went on to become Prime Ministers and Presidents of India.
Those who seek to vilify Congress want the people to believe otherwise. As if the world began with them!
The BJP followed a strategy of man-to-man marking, to surround prominent Congress and JD(S) leaders in Karnataka in such a manner that they got restricted to their constituencies. Now, the day of polling is upon you. Did Congress not have a counter-strategy?
I know the Prime Minister does not want our voices to be in the Lok Sabha. He did not like the way I raised a whole lot of issues to corner the government, from natural security to women’s security and the rights of the Dalits. Whether I’ll be in the Lok Sabha or not is not dependent on the BJP strategy but the people’s wishes—the choice the people make.
Speaking of people, never before has party manifestos been highlighted so much as in these elections. Both the BJP and the Congress has made a string of promises. Rahul Gandhi is repeatedly talking of NYAY. But has the message of a minimum income scheme reached the ground?
It’s a unique scheme, much thought and research has gone into making the NYAY proposal. Congress does not believe in jumlanomics. We are a responsible party. When we make a pitch for something, it means we have weighed the pros and cons.... But I do feel it would have been better if we had more time to take the message to the people.
Your critics, some economists among them, and of course the BJP, feel that NYAY is unviable. That it would either entail cutting of existing subsidies or increase tax burden.
The same critics said many such things on MNREGA. But what happened? There will always be naysayers. However, a discussion on people’s livelihood issues is much better than the communal rhetoric of the BJP that vitiates the atmosphere. We want to make our points through policy proposals, they want to make a point by fielding the likes of Pragya Thakur.