After years of head-on clashes in which invariably Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party won and the Congress was discomposed, Mallikarjun Kharge, who is both Leader of the Opposition and the elected Congress president, finessed treasury benches and held the prime minister to account. Guile and not a frontal attack lured the treasury benches to underestimate his tactics.
He lured finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to incriminate Modi and give credence to allegations of his connections to Gautam Adani, as chief minister of Gujarat and now prime minister. Sitharaman defended her boss, arguing that Kharge made “insinuating” jibes that were “subtly and overtly” against the prime minister. That became abundantly clear when he re-read the bit that provoked the treasury benches to jump to Modi’s defence. Kharge pointed to the astronomical increase in Gautam Adani’s valuation from Rs 1 lakh crore to Rs 12 lakh crore in two years.
I am a Bhumiputra 🇮🇳 pic.twitter.com/4eFUaETLxA
— Mallikarjun Kharge (@kharge) February 9, 2023
As an experienced and wily parliamentarian, a strategic player who knows his enemy well enough to find the unprotected underbelly, Kharge understood that head-on confrontation of the photograph-brandishing kind used by Rahul Gandhi in the Lok Sabha a day earlier would not work. By the time he finished, he had Modi in a bind, where any statement he made on the Adani group’s vertiginous wealth accumulation between 2019 and 2021 would incriminate the prime minister, his policies and his claims to corruption-free governance. Denying that the valuation had jumped in two years would be a lie; admitting that it had happened would require an explanation of how it had happened.
By cornering Modi and compelling the BJP, including its front benches in the Rajya Sabha, to make mistakes, Kharge has trapped the ruling establishment in a corner. It has never been on the defensive like it is now and it has fewer weapons in its arsenal to whip up a frenzy of hate, support and adulation of Modi. Kharge has stated the obvious; Modi can stop hate speeches and photo-ops now if he so chooses. He can reverse decisions and entrust the public sector, instead of Adani, with public money in banks and LIC for building public infrastructure, thereby creating jobs.
The presiding officers of the two Houses of Parliament have been put on the defensive by Kharge, for overdoing their supervision of the discussions. In doing so, Kharge has raised questions about freedom to speak, criticise and what is in the national interest and who decides that, making it difficult for at least the Rajya Sabha chairperson, Jagdeep Dhankar, to manage the House. On Monday, the Rajya Sabha was adjourned till March 13, following prolonged ruckus.
By shifting the onus, Kharge has made himself Modi’s challenger and a competent adversary for the BJP’s strategy making machinery. As it happens, Kharge wears two hats: Leader of the Opposition and Congress president.
Kharge has to get on with leading the Congress. Parliament is not the arena where BJP’s current uneasy defensiveness can convince voters. The Congress needs to cover the vast distance between the rarified environs of Parliament and numerically huge number of voters in rural India’s farthest corners. It would have to be rapidly. Squandering the advantage that convert enthusiasm for Rahul Gandhi’s message on his gruelling Bharat Jodo Yatra would be both feckless and spendthrift, neither of which the Congress can afford. A mandate is what the Congress seeks, against Modi and the BJP’s ideology of majoritarian identity politics and micr0-level manoeuvrings of sub castes and labharthis (beneficiaries of Modi’s munificence).
Kharge, who vehemently objects to being labelled as a Dalit leader and demands that he be identified as a Congress man, exudes a salt of the earth confidence, unlike many highly visible and voluble party leaders. His rise up the ranks of the Congress from an ordinary worker to Karnataka legislator, state party boss, parliamentarian and cabinet minister has not changed his persona much. That is an advantage, both against the BJP and its targeted attacks against the “Khan Market gang” used to describe what the Sangh imagines are hothoused bred leaders, and for Rahul Gandhi who is a sitting duck for barbs about dynastic politics and within the Congress.
The election that Kharge won revealed that about 90% of the electoral college of 10,000 eligible Congress members preferred him and not Shashi Tharoor, an eloquent speaker and prolific writer, who did not rise through the party ranks but came in laterally. As party boss, Kharge needs all the different groups, with their particular appeal, to unify under his leadership to ensure that the BJP remains on the defensive and continues to make missteps of the Sitharaman sort. This is the sort of conciliation and collective leadership that the Congress once possessed, in its heydays before and after Independence.
By making his former rival, Tharoor, head of the subcommittee on international affairs ahead of the February 24 meeting of the Congress, Kharge is pulling together the resources of the party that can hit the BJP from all sides. Because Modi has made India’s rise in world rankings and its leadership of the G20 a key achievement of his tenure as prime minister, the Congress needs to puncture that inflated claim. To be seen to be inclusive is a strategy that could make Kharge’s position stronger.
The art of disarming the other side seems to be a tactic that Kharge uses to positive effect. In the Rajya Sabha, he had Modi chortling; he admonished the treasury benches to let the prime minister laugh, even though the prime minister was the target of his pointed and searing attack. That his barbs stung was evident in Modi’s elaborate explanation on Sunday, while inaugurating 246 km of the Delhi-Mumbai highway, that world-class highways had a wealth creation multiplier effect.
By reducing the complex reasons why the BJP and Modi’s leadership should be rejected into two specific issues, Kharge sharpened the focus so that the common person could make sense of the matter. It will be easier now for grassroots Congress leaders to amplify the attack.
Kharge is not a soft target for Modi and the BJP. If he can get his party organised and deliver a win in the Karnataka state elections due later this year, the Congress president will be a challenger that the BJP will have to struggle to contain.
Shikha Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based commentator.
Edited by Jahnavi Sen.