Congress party president Mallikarjun Kharge, center, flanked by party's Karnataka state chief D. K. Shivakumar, left, and senior leader Siddaramaiah during a press conference after their win in Karnataka state elections in Bengaluru, India, Saturday, May 13, 2023. Elections in India's southern state of Karnataka were held on May 10 | Photo: AP
Bengaluru: Making an emotional appeal to voters in his home turf on the last day of campaigning, Mallikarjun Kharge had asked them to take pride in the fact that he as a "bhoomi putra" of Karnataka had been made AICC president, and sought a win for the Congress in that name.
It looks like he struck an instant chord with the people, with the voters rewarding the Congress with a comfortable majority of 136 seats in the 224 member Karnataka Legislative Assembly for which elections were held on May 10, and the votes counted on Saturday.
Many party leaders credit Khage for the win mainly for camping in the state and mentoring the party at every level in the run up to polls.
Lot seemed to be riding on the octogenarian leader, who extensively travelled across the state addressing rallies and campaigning for Congress candidates. In all he addressed 24 public meetings and held one road show.
"I want to tell (PM Narendra) Modi now that I'm the 'bhoomi putra' (son of the soil) of Karnataka and Gulbarga (Kalaburagi). The right you have in Gujarat, I have here and I should get it. You have done nothing for my place, but I'm asking after working for my region. What have you done to seek votes here?" Kharge had said addressing a campaign rally in Kalaburagi earlier this week.
Due to the blessings of the people of Kalaburagi he was in Parliament and had been in the Assembly, and worked in various capacities including Leader of Opposition, Kharge said. Though he lost the Lok Sabha polls, party leader Sonia Gandhi had made him a Rajya Sabha member and then LoP.
Above all he has been made the AICC president. "It is a matter of pride of Gulbarga (Kalaburagi), and people of the state, not mine," he said.
The Congress entered the campaign with the challenge of keeping at bay the factionalism, especially between the camps of its two Chief Ministerial aspirants -- Siddaramaiah and D K Shivakumar -- who were often seen to be engaging in political one-upmanship. It somehow managed to put up a united front and ensured that no rift came out in open and derail its prospects.
Party leaders suggest that Kharge has to be credited for bringing in a sense of unity among the rank and file in the run-up to polls. He also ensured there is by and large unanimity among all sections in deciding candidates, which ultimately paid off.
Though the Congress' campaign initially centered around its state leaders like Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar, Kharge gave it momentum and thereby prepared the pitch for the party's top leaders Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi to join in.
Kharge is only the second leader, after Jagjivan Ram, to be the Congress President from the Dalit community, which constitutes about 24 per cent of the population across more than 100 caste groups in the state. With his appointment there were expectations within the state Congress to encash dividend to consolidate its Dalit vote base.
However, there is also anger among a large section of the community over the fact that Congress, which enjoyed their support for long, did not make a Dalit the Chief Minister. Kharge himself had lost out, after having come very close to it, a couple of times.
According to party sources, Kharge lost out in the race to become Chief Ministers thrice--in 1999 to S M Krishna, 2004 to Dharam Singh, and in 2013 to Siddaramaiah.
Amid stiff competition between him and senior leader Siddaramiah for the CM post in the event of Congress coming to power in the Assembly polls, Karnataka state Congress President Shivakumar had attempted to bring Kharge's name into the race, which had raised eyebrows within the party circles.
However, Kharge had himself ruled out by pointing out that he is now the AICC President.
The second AICC president from Karnataka after S Nijalingappa, now he has the credit of winning his home state during his Presidency.
After taking charge as the first non-Gandhi Congress president in 24 years, in October 2022, this is his second electoral victory after Himachal Pradesh in December last year.
At a time when it seemed like all was going well for it, Congress during the campaigning had also waded into controversies with Mallikarjun Kharge's "venomous snake" barb at Prime Minister Modi and then his son and Chittapur MLA Priyank Kharge's “nalayak beta” (incompetent son) remark against him, as they were latched on to by the BJP which had urged the voters to punish the Congress for its "politics of abuse".