Eighty-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge is a man who has come up the ranks. Though saddled with the unenvious position of having to steer a party that is at its lowest in terms of electoral performance, Kharge, the organisational man that he is, appears unfazed. The challenges are not merely extraneous but internal as well, requiring him to walk the political tightrope. In a freewheeling interview with Frontline, the first after the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh and local body elections in Delhi, Kharge spoke on a gamut of issues. Excerpts:
The Congress just observed its 138th Foundation Day function and you are the first non-Gandhi to hoist the flag after 24 years. How significant is this?
Frankly, it’s significant only in the way that, contrary to all criticism regarding ours being a family-centric party, I am living proof that it’s not true at all. I am someone who started as a block president in 1969 and have reached the top position in the party after contesting an organisational election. An ordinary mill worker’s son becoming an MLA, a Minister, an MP, a Union Minister, Leader of Opposition in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha and, finally, the Congress president, is also the story of India I think, where an ordinary man can reach the top with his dedication and hard work.
How do you interpret the results of the Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections? What do the Himachal victory and the setbacks in Gujarat and Delhi translate into for the party?
A victory is the elixir that is needed from time to time to keep our workers motivated and going. We are happy that the people of Himachal Pradesh elected a Congress government. The hard work of our workers and leaders have resulted in the people putting their faith in us. About Gujarat and Delhi MCD, I feel that we could have done better. We have definitely learnt from mistakes made in these States and the lessons learnt will serve us well in coming elections.
The Congress appears to be in a rejuvenated mode with the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the victory in Himachal. Are these events an indication of the Congress returning as a force to reckon with?
The Bharat Jodo Yatra has seen tremendous support all around. They are interacting with all sections of the society–youth, women, kisans, Dalits, Adivasis, ex-servicemen–everyone. There are interactions even with local civil society members. Lakhs of people wake up early in the morning and line up to welcome the yatris.
There are also large public meetings in every State. I have been going to all such meetings and the crowd reaction tells me that people are largely in distress. They are disappointed with the way the Central government has failed to contain inflation and unemployment. So the yatra is uniting people largely on these issues. Rahulji is also appealing for communal harmony through this yatra and people are relating to it.
We want to thank the people of Himachal Pradesh. Everyone worked hard and people gave their blessings. It was a collective campaign. All our senior leaders, the Chief Minister, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in charge and his team, a special word for Priyanka Gandhi for holding the maximum number of rallies, they all need to be given credit. Our cadre is energised and we are gathering ourselves to move on to the next electoral battle.
On the issue of dissension within the Congress, in Rajasthan, where you are in power, or Chhattisgarh, where the party does not appear united, and in States such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Madhya Pradesh. Do you see these developments as serious enough to be taken up?
In Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh we are running efficient, people-centric government models. Innovative schemes like the Godhan Yojana have resulted in Chhattisgarh registering the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Similarly, the Rajasthan government’s Mukhya Mantri Chiranjivi Yojana and the Indira Gandhi Urban Employment scheme are hugely popular.
As far as the so-called dissension is concerned, you will find it in every party. Don’t you find dissension in the BJP in Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh? In fact, you will find that it is more prevalent because of the suppressive nature of their organisation, in which only one person is almighty. In contrast, the Congress is democratic at heart, where everyone is guided by a common goal which is to strengthen the party in the pursuit of working for the betterment of the people.
In the battle with the BJP, there is an ideological challenge. An additional important dimension is the question of organisational strength. How does the Congress propose to address the significant gap in organisational strength between it and the BJP?
As far as the ideological challenge is concerned, there is no confusion about the Congress party’s ideology and how it is opposed to the BJP’s divisive agenda. We named the yatra as “Bharat Jodo Yatra” for that reason.
Regarding organisational strength, let me give you an example. Our Chief Minister in Himachal Pradesh, Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, started his career in the National Students Union of India (NSUI). He became the State NSUI president and then the State Youth Congress president. Later, he became the Pradesh Congress Committee president and he is the Chief Minister now.
Similarly, Bhupesh Baghelji, Ashok Gehlotji, even I myself have worked at the grassroots level. I used to attend rallies of our Congress leaders and used to put posters and flags in my area. All this happened because we have an organisation. I agree that there are some States where the Congress’ organisational strength needs attention. But I and my team are personally working to strengthen our organisation in those States. We are trying to identify new talent, get new people. Assign responsibilities. I found great support in the steering committee meeting when I spoke about “organisational accountability from top to bottom”. So, we mean business and you will see commitment to our resolve.
Many opposition parties seem convinced about putting up a united front to deal with the ideological challenge. But there seems to be a gap between one’s conviction and praxis. For example, the Congress talks of taking on the challenge but does not display unity with other opposition parties in arriving at an electoral understanding.
The Congress is trying to build its organisational structure, energise its cadre through programmmes like the Bharat Jodo Yatra and “Hath se jude hath”. Our leaders and workers, led by Rahul Gandhi, have been on the road for the last four months. He has walked more than 2,800 km, has met millions and spoken to lakhs. In the present circumstances, a strong Congress is a guarantee of a strong opposition. And it is evident during the course of the Parliament session as well.
Of course, there are parties that have their own aspirations. And we don’t hold any grudge against them. But, we are ready to work with everyone and take them together, whoever wants to join us in the fight. Our doors are always open for like-minded parties. It’s important to understand that anybody who is fighting against the Congress nationally is helping the BJP.
One lament of political observers is that the opposition is not united. So, is a fragmented opposition enough to effect a political change to protect your party’s idea of India or is there something more that needs to be done by all?
We are an ideology-driven party. We are not guided by the lust for power. Our quest is to safeguard the Constitution and democracy. While it’s true that the Congress is the central figure in the opposition, around which all other like-minded parties align, the same is true about the BJP and its allies.
As Rahulji said recently, I also think that if the opposition parties coordinate properly and go together to the people of India with an alternative vision, we can win 2024.
What is the Congress’ approach towards forming coalitions and alliances to challenge the BJP?
Our approach to alliances is clear. We go by what our party units and leaders say in the States. However, it’s important to mention that we are result driven. We will support like-minded parties where they are capable of taking on the BJP and its allies. India is looking for change in 2024. Only the Congress can lead that change.
The BJP says that the secular, socialist, anti-capitalist rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s does not work in an aspirational India. Do you think these ideas are still relevant?
The BJP, being a party that has grown out of religious polarisation and fundamentalism, will never understand what secularism is. Secularism in the Indian context is respecting every religion, every caste, every community, every sect and taking everyone together. Our leaders have sacrificed their lives for the unity of this nation. Unfortunately, the BJP doesn’t have the luxury to claim the same. How many of their political and ideological predecessors fought the British and participated in the national movement? The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its organisations helped the British against Indians. They have zero contribution in the national movement. They opposed the Constitution framed by Babasaheb Ambedkar. They criticised it. Will those who have not framed the Constitution ever be able to understand terms like “secular”, “socialist”, “freedom”, and “liberty”? It was for a reason that Sardar Patel was opposed to them. And these are intrinsic Indian values, so these will always remain important and valid to India and its people.
The aspirational India that you refer to is also a largely a creation of Congress governments. It started with the opening up of India’s economy and the 1991 reforms. It was our leaders, Dr Manmohan Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao, who steered these changes. The UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government gave the highest GDP growth rate in Indian history. As soon as a non-Congress government comes to power, the GDP growth plummets. The same is happening under the Modi government. We understand aspirational India. We understand what the youth want and whenever given a chance, we also deliver.
The BJP often defends its actions by referring to the Emergency, the 1984 riots, or dissension within the Congress.
The people of India understand all these gimmicks of the BJP. All these distractions don’t work now. The Congress and its leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, have on different occasions stated that the Emergency was a wrong decision. Even Indira Gandhi herself apologised for it.
As far as the 1984 riots are concerned, Manmohan Singh apologised for it in on the floor of Parliament as Prime Minister. Sonia Gandhi went to the highest seat of Sikh temporal power, which is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and offered an apology.
Further, it is also true that the Congress stands for secularism. It will always fight any attempt to communalise Indian society. Our programmes, policies, and politics stand testimony to our commitment to secular values. India has progressed immensely in the last 40-50 years and the Congress has made a large and lasting contribution in this journey. While the people of India want to move forward and look at the bright future, the party in power wants to keep these wounds fresh; they keep stoking it for their petty political benefit. The difference between Congress and BJP is that we own it up, bow down to the people and apologise if we make a mistake, even if it is inadvertent. But the BJP will shamelessly brazen it out.
As a person who has risen up the ranks, do you feel that the unfinished agenda of our Constitution framers, of bridging the economic and social divide for the benefit of one and all, needs to be taken up aggressively?
This is something very close to my heart. I believe no one, absolutely no one, should be denied his/her opportunity just because he is born into a particular caste or tribe. There are 30 lakh vacancies in the Central government alone and, as per my estimate, of these, there should be around 15 lakh vacancies for STs [Scheduled Tribes], SCs [Scheduled Castes], and OBCs [Other Backward Classes]. Why are they not being filled? Why does the backlog mostly remain in reservation categories?
As far as the social divide is concerned, we need not just affirmative action but social change too. We need reforms that go to the grassroots. That can only happen when people realise that we are all humans first. We need deeper sensitisation of society in these matters. I have noted that cases of atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis have gone up many times under the Modi government. Simple things like Dalits not being allowed to take out a marriage procession; Dalit children being persecuted in schools and made to sit separately; Dalits not allowed to fetch water from a well; all such cases have gone up in the last eight years and this deeply disturbs me. We need to fight these ills together. We need everyone’s participation. This cannot happen if the society is divided in the name of religion and caste. Only a united society can undertake real, progressive change in our country.
What is the Congress offering as solutions to the problem of mass unemployment and gross inequality that characterises India today?
The people of India are fed up of the divisive agenda and the BJP’s distractions to cover up its massive failures. India deserves a new forward-looking vision. We will soon come up with our vision for growth, employment and development. Our programmes and policies in the past have led India on the path of prosperity and development. But the new technological possibilities, the developing global order, the threat of Chinese economic hegemony necessitate a new economic vision. The [extent of] distress has gone up under the current regime and the mass transfer of wealth to crony capitalists has added to the challenge of finding effective policies to serve the cause of common people. But certainly our vision will support small businesses because they are the real growth engines and job creators. We will fill up all the vacancies in the Central and State governments on a war footing. We will try to stop the indiscriminate selling of the family silver–our PSUs. We are not against corporates, privatisation, but we are against selling everything and anything to crony capitalists. After all, who sells a profit-making company? But our government is [doing that]. All I can say is that we have a record of delivering results. We have done it before, we will do it again.
The Election Commission is exploring the possibility of a multi-constituency remote electronic voting machine to augment voting percentage. How does your party view this?
We, as the oldest political party, think that trust in the electoral system is paramount for our democracy to function. The Congress had made constructive suggestions in the past to increase confidence in the voting process by expanding the number of booths in which Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) slips are counted. However, this has not been accepted.
I think it’s more important for the Election Commission to restore the trust of voters and deal with opposition parties’ concerns with transparency and via honest engagement rather than trying new things which can further enhance the doubts. As far as the new proposal is concerned, we will give our final comments after going through the proposal, once full details are shared by the Election Commission.