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Can Gulbarga’s most famous politician outsmart both rebels and BJP?

Kharge appears unmoved, both by the departures of his confidants and the charges of nepotism.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Apr 21, 2019, 08.44 AM IST
Can Gulbarga’s most famous politician outsmart both rebels and BJP?

The confidence showed by Mallikarjun Kharge, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, is not misplaced.

It is a tense moment. The speaker has just finished introducing Mallikarjun Kharge, Gulbarga’s most famous politician, to a packed auditorium at Poojya Doddappa Appa College of Engineering. But before Kharge can acknowledge it, from the balcony rises a chant that gets louder and louder: “Modi, Modi, Modi...” As heads swivel towards the direction of the interruption & senior Congress members on the stage exchange agitated glances, only Kharge remains impassive, showing not a flicker of emotion till the sloganeering dies down. When it is his turn to speak, the 76-year old incumbent Congress MP, dressed in a starched white kurta, dhoti and blue sneakers, says: “I am not perturbed by the chants. And neither should you be...You should vote based on my performance, not on emotion. BJP’s contribution to Gulbarga is zero.”

The confidence showed by Kharge, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, is not misplaced.

In his nine terms as a Karnataka legislator and two consecutive terms as a Lok Sabha member from the Gulbarga seat (a part of Kalaburagi district) in the arid Hyderabad-Karnataka region, he has brought in several hospitals, educational institutions and better rail connectivity (he was the railway minister in the UPA government from 2013 to 2014).

More significantly, people of the reserved constituency give him credit for helping insert Article 371J in the Constitution in 2012, which made residents of this least developed region in Karnataka entitled to special privileges, including additional quota in state government jobs and educational institutions.

This is what is said to have helped the Congress veteran, who has never lost an election, withstand the Narendra Modi wave of 2014 even as it washed away many of his party colleagues.

“The Hyderabad-Karnataka region has become an educational hub today because of Kharge. He has done a lot for Gulbarga in terms of jobs and education,” says Dinesh Pawar, a final-year engineering student in the city. But that feeling might not swing everyone’s votes. “I agree he has brought development to Gulbarga. But this is a Lok Sabha election and Modi has a longterm vision for the country,” says Rachna Vaidya, a second year engineering student.

More than a continued support for Modi, the chink in Kharge’s seemingly impenetrable poll armour this time may be his own party men, who recently switched to the BJP. The reason behind their disgruntlement, they say, is Kharge’s move to elevate his son, Priyank Kharge, currently a minister in the Congress-JDS government, at the cost of more experienced colleagues from Kalaburagi district. Among the first to revolt was a six-time MLA, Malikayya Guttedar, who switched to BJP before the assembly polls. He was followed by former minister Baburao Chinchansur. Kharge’s challenger this time is also a former Congress MLA, Umesh Jadhav, who joined the BJP in March. “This election will be tough. It is a question of political survival for him (Kharge),” says Ambaraya Ashtagi, a close aide of Kharge for years till he joined the BJP. At a BJP public meeting in the city, held in the evening so that attendees get some reprieve from the blistering summer heat, several speakers allude to these departures from the Congress, with one even saying Kharge is now left only with his son. Jadhav, who surprises the audience by suddenly prostrating before them after his speech, also expresses confidence. “I am very comfortable. It will be a historic decision by the common people,” he tells ET Magazine later.

Kharge appears unmoved, both by the departures of his confidants and the charges of nepotism. He says his fight is with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the RSS and the BJP, who are nervous about his performance as Opposition leader and hence want to ensure his defeat. “Modi is afraid of my performance… But people are with me,” he tells ET Magazine in an interview at his residence, named Lumbini.

A group of voters in Kurkotta village in Gulbarga Rural (SC) assembly constituency, which the BJP won in 2018, bear out Kharge’s confidence, as they reel off his contributions. “Thanks to him, at least now, people in Delhi know about Gulbarga,” says Arun Kumar, a doctor. Gulbarga has eight assembly seats of which Congress holds four, the BJP three and JDS one.

And not even Kharge’s detractors will admit that “Bade saheb”, as he is referred to here, will be easy to defeat. “Our chances are 50:50,” says a local BJP leader.

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