The electoral heat in the Kalaburagi (Gulbarga) Lok Sabha Constituency of Karnataka is intense. It is from this reserved constituency, which lies closer to Telangana capital Hyderabad than to Karnataka capital Bengaluru, that Mallikarjun Kharge, the 77-year-old leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), is seeking people’s mandate yet again. He has to his credit 11 electoral victories so far. This time his main contestant is Dr Umesh G Jadhav, former Congress MLA of Chincholi Assembly Constituency, who recently joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after resigning his seat from the Karnataka Legislative Assembly as BJP's Operation Lotus to topple the Congress-Janata Dal (S) state government intensified.
Kharge can boast of an electoral experience of 48 long years, of which he had won Assembly polls nine times and Lok Sabha elections twice, including the one in 2014. The opposition in the state, BJP, is determined to vanquish Kharge who is also a significant face of the Congress at the national level as he is the leader of the Congress parliamentary party in the Lok Sabha. With the Chincholi Assembly constituency from where Jadhav resigned, going for a midterm poll on May 19, the electoral battles have become sharper.
Kharge's chair in the drawing room of ‘Lumbini,’ his Kalaburagi home, is flanked with the figures of Lord Buddha and a replica of the Lion Capital of Ashoka - the official Emblem of India. Kharge is engaged in intense discussions with the leaders of different communities. Some of them are touching his feet.
Kharge does not see Jadhav as an opponent that merits serious attention. “I had given Umesh Jadhav, a surgeon by profession, the party ticket for the Assembly seat. I know how much of an electoral challenge he could throw,” Kharge noted.
Jadhav is bracing up for a battle with the backup of the Banjara community, a scheduled caste community that has an influential presence in constituency.
Apart from Jadhav, many of Kharge’s disciples whom he had introduced into the politics are now in the stables of the BJP. They include formers Congress ministers Mallikayya Guttedar, Baburao Chinchasur and A B Malka Reddy.
The rift between the master and the disciples arose with the rise of Kharge’s son Priyank M Kharge, the present Social Welfare Minister of Karnataka. His old protégés are now set upon defeating Kharge at least once in his constituency. Even under the present circumstances, the constituency remains to be a stronghold of the Congress.
The body language of Kharge, who had stood like a rock behind the agitation to win backward and reserved category status to the northeastern Hyderabad-Karnataka region of the state, is still that of a trade union leader. His words are careful and measured.
A law graduate, Kharge had entered the political field by giving legal advices to textile mills and by leading the trade union, Samyukta Mazdur Sangha. He has not tasted electoral failure since winning from the Gutmitkal Assembly constituency in Kalaburagi in 1972.
Kharge said that he could be present in Kalaburagi constituency just for five or six days as he had to travel across the country for the Congress campaigns. This Kannadiga, who is a Buddhist belonging to a Scheduled Caste community, states that he does not visit monasteries and temples to seek vote.
Excerpts from Mallikarjun Kharge’s interview to Malayala Manorama:
Q: L Hanumanthaiah, a Rajya Sabha MP of your party, had said recently that in case the Congress fails to win a clear margin in the polls, you may be considered as a prime ministerial candidate instead of Congress president Rahul Gandhi?
A: My leader is none other than Rahul Gandhi. People may deliver much emotional rhetoric during the campaigns. The BJP and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) are spreading communal hatred across the country. To prevent them, the Congress needs to come back to power. The expectation is that the Congress– Janata Dal (S) alliance in Karnataka will win 20 seats (out of the 28) this time.
Q: Umesh Jadhav is spreading the notion of an anti-Kharge wave which could be helpful to him?
A: I have been working for the development of Kalaburagi for the past half decade. In 1948, there was only one intermediate college for five districts in this entire Lok Sabha constituency. Students had to go to Hyderabad for higher education. Now, each city here has at least four medical colleges. People will not easily forget the progress brought to the constituency through the 10-Point and 25-Point programmes launched by Indira Gandhi as well as through land reforms.
Q: Your take on the BJP’s charge that making your son Priyank Kharge a minister was an attempt to establish family rule in the state’s politics?
A: Priyank has proved his mettle as a worker of the Indian Youth Congress. He had also proved himself as a member of the (previous) Siddaramaiah Cabinet. I’m not a member of the Congress– Dal coordination committee. They had considered the regional and caste equations while working out the cabinet posts.