With most media coverage focussing on the role of the two chief ministerial candidates of the Indian National Congress in Karnataka—KPCC President D. K. Shivakumar and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah—what has been ignored is the stellar work of All India Congress Committee (AICC) chairperson Mallikarjun Kharge, who led from the front and should be credited with the Congress’ phenomenal victory in Karnataka.
The 80-year-old veteran leader of the Congress party, who was born in Bidar district, was often a contender for the Chief Minister’s post in the State over the past two decades but his caste (he is a Dalit who belongs to Karnataka’s Holeya caste) impeded his chances and ensured that he gradually shifted to play a more prominent role in national politics after 2013, first in the Parliament and then, as the president of the AICC. Notwithstanding this, Kharge led the campaign in Karnataka from the front and ensured that the Congress would win resoundingly in his home state.
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For most of 2022, the Congress looked like it was thwarting its own campaign as supporters of both Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar made provocative statements that their leader would be the Chief Minister. This distracting conjecture that had the potential of severely denting the Congress’ chances was laid to rest in early 2023 in the wake of the Bharat Jodo Yatra’s passage through Karnataka. According to sources within the Congress, it was Kharge’s astute management of the party’s internal dynamics that quelled this latent infighting with the Karnataka state unit. In this, Kharge must be credited as he even surmounted his simmering long-time rivalry with Siddaramaiah, the “outsider” [as Siddaramaiah moved to the Congress from the JD(S) in 2006] who trumped Kharge to become the Karnataka Chief Minister in 2013.
During the Congress’ well-honed campaign, Kharge addressed 48 rallies across the State and often beseeched voters to give the Congress a full majority of 150 seats so that the party could form a stable government. During one of these rallies, Kharge even referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “poisonous snake” and, in the wake of the uproar that followed, apologised, and clarified that his reference was to the ideology of the BJP.
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In Kharge’s home region of Kalyana Karnataka (formerly Hyderabad Karnataka), the Congress improved its tally and won 27 out of the 40 seats (up from 21 seats in 2018). His son Priyank Kharge, who led the charge against the BJP on the issue of corruption, won the Chittapur seat (in Kalaburagi district) by a convincing margin of 13,640 votes. Interestingly, Kalyana Karnataka has a relatively higher share of Dalits, Muslims and tribal voters (16 out of 40 seats are reserved for Dalits and tribals) when compared with the rest of Karnataka, and according to data from various pre-poll surveys, all these social groups staunchly stood with the Congress this time around.