Mallikarjun Kharge: How the former Kabaddi player-turned-lawyer became Congress president

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On October 19, Mallikarjun Kharge was elected president of the Indian National Congress. In an organisational poll held two days ago, the 80-year-old Rajya Sabha leader defeated his rival Shashi Tharoor. Of the total 9,385 votes, Kharge polled 7,897 votes while Tharoor got 1,072 votes; 416 votes were invalid. The former Union railway minister, who has also held several important ministries in Karnataka, is the second Dalit president of the party in five decades after Jagjivan Ram became Congress chief in 1970.

Kharge was born on July 21, 1942, at Warawatti in Bidar district of Karnataka. The area falls in the old Hyderabad-Karnataka region. That’s the reason he is fluent in Urdu and Hindi. He went to a Marathi medium government school. So he can speak Marathi too, apart from English.

At the age of seven, Kharge lost his mother to communal violence, which also forced his family to move from Warawatti to neighbouring Kalaburagi, formerly known as Gulbarga. The incident left a deep impact on his mind, making him a strong advocate of secularism. He is a practising Buddhist and ardent follower of Dr B.R. Ambedkar.

Kharge has been a state-level player in kabaddi and hockey, and also used to play football and cricket. Till a few years ago, he would often go to stadiums to watch cricket matches.

Kharge is an arts graduate from Government College, Kalaburagi. He also holds a law degree from the Seth Shankarlal Lahoti Law College in Kalaburagi. A labour law expert, he practised under Shivaraj Patil, who later became a Supreme Court judge.

Kharge was active in student politics and later with labour unions. He joined the Congress in 1969, the year then prime minister Indira Gandhi was expelled from the party. Kharge sided with Indira. In 1969, at the age of 27, he became president of the Kalaburagi Town Congress Committee.

Ten years later, he left the Indira-led Congress along with his mentor and former Karnataka chief minister Devraj Urs. He returned to the Congress in 1980. That was the only time Kharge showed a rebel streak. He did not revolt even when he missed out on becoming Karnataka chief minister thrice. In 1999, S.M. Krishna was favoured for the post instead of Kharge. In 2004, Kharge’s close friend Dharam Singh became the consensus candidate to head a Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government. In 2013, Siddaramaiah edged him out of the race.

Kharge was elected to the Karnataka assembly nine times consecutively, between 1972 and 2008. He also won from the Gulbarga Lok Sabha constituency in 2009 and 2014 and came to be known as ‘Solilada Sardara’, which means undefeated chieftain.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Kharge was defeated by his former election agent Umesh Jadhav, who had become a legislator but had subsequently defected to the BJP.

In his long illustrious political career spanning five decades, he held several important portfolios, such as Union minister of railways and labour and employment, leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, home affairs and rural development minister in Karnataka, leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka assembly and president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee.

Kharge and wife Radhabai have three sons—Rahul, Priyank and Milind—and two daughters—Priyadarshini and Jayashree. Except for Priyank, who is a Congress MLA and a former Karnataka minister, the others are not in politics. Kharge was very insistent that his children focus on education and stay away from politics. Both his daughters are doctors. The eldest son Rahul, who quit his job as an IAS officer, is now a scientist at the Indian Institute of Science and his youngest son Milind, who is a management graduate from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, works in the private sector.

Though he comes across as a serious person in public discourse, Kharge can be extremely witty in private. His sense of humour and sarcasm can have anyone in splits during a one-on-one conversation. At home, Kharge is a strict disciplinarian. He is particular about not wasting food, electricity and water. He is always curious to learn and doesn’t hesitate asking anyone at home—wife, sons, daughters, grandchildren—about things and issues that he is not familiar with.

Kharge also quizzes his grandchildren on subjects ranging from global warming to local civic issues to check their awareness about their surroundings. He doesn’t let them go to school without their hair properly combed, dress ironed and shoes polished. At times, when he is home, he combs their hair, irons clothes or polishes their shoes, if he finds anything out of place.

Kharge is a foodie. He loves his non-vegetarian fare and jowar roti, though he has reduced his non-vegetarian intake of late. But when it comes to party meetings, he can sit through for more than half a day without taking a food break. He follows no specific exercise regime except physiotherapy post a knee surgery in 2017. At 80, he remains more agile than most of his compatriots and is not afflicted by any serious medical issue