Two Dalit narratives in Kharge heartland - Hindustan Times
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Two Dalit narratives in Kharge heartland

May 06, 2024 11:03 PM IST

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge represented a strand of Dalit politics that was less strident and accommodative of other caste interests.

Among the politicians with the highest stakes in the constituencies that go to the polls today is one who is not contesting. Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge has given the ticket in his constituency, Gulbarga, to his son-in-law and handed over the reins of his campaign to his son, Karnataka minister Priyank Kharge. The transfer of his constituency to the next generation at a time when the Congress president is at the height of his national recognition is likely to be presented as a sign of a fear of failure, but it is also a commentary on the course Dalit politics has taken in India.

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge addresses a public meeting ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. (ANI Photo)(ANI) PREMIUM
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge addresses a public meeting ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. (ANI Photo)(ANI)

Mainstream Dalit politics in India has been deeply rooted in the differing perspectives of Ambedkar and Gandhi. These differences are remembered primarily in terms of Ambedkar seeking separate electorates while Gandhi wanted everybody to be able to vote for Dalits in reserved constituencies. Ambedkar argued that a general electorate in a constituency reserved for Dalits would lead to the more upper-caste-friendly Dalit winning. Gandhi saw a general electorate voting in a choice between Dalit candidates as a means of forcing the upper castes to recognise Dalit leaders. Nearly a century after that debate in 1932, the differences have moved to one between the Ambedkarite focus on Dalit identity and a more broad-based effort at Dalit absorption.

Mallikarjun Kharge clearly saw himself as a part of the second tradition. When, as a seven-year-old, he witnessed his mother and sister being burnt alive by the Razakars of the Nizam, he could have easily been drawn into an identity-based communal mindset. His decision to instead focus on reducing differences between communities extended to his Dalit identity as well. As he grew into a labour lawyer and then a politician, he focused on issues that went beyond identity, sometimes objecting to being referred to as a Dalit politician.

Playing down his identity resulted in Kharge’s politics focusing primarily on issues affecting the region he represented. Northeast Karnataka is the most backward region in the state and much of Kharge’s politics has been on seeking specific benefits for this region. He has sought projects to develop the region and played an important role in introducing Article 371-J into the Constitution of India. The article provides special benefits to northeast Karnataka.

Kharge’s inclusive politics paid him rich political dividends. Between 1972 and 2014, he contested 11 assembly and parliamentary elections and never lost. But his repeated electoral successes over a 42-year period papered over two trends that were making his style of politics more difficult to pursue.

The more significant of these trends was the rise of identity politics. This has been most visible in the growth of Hindutva, but that was not the only identity that was gaining greater mileage. Caste identities also began to gain greater importance in the political scheme of things, and Dalit identity was no exception.

The politics of Dalit identity has taken on diverse forms. There is the growth of Ambedkar as the symbol of Dalit identity, which is presented with varying degrees of assertion. Within this larger picture, there has been the growth of sub-Dalit identities as well. In Karnataka, there has been considerable debate over the share of the Left sect and the Right sect of the Dalits. This issue dominated the discourse around this round of ticket distribution in several reserved constituencies in the state. Irrespective of the specific type of Dalit identity that was being highlighted, identity politics eroded Kharge’s Dalit-led inclusive politics.

It did not also help that Kharge’s efforts to develop northeast Karnataka had less success than he may have hoped for. Karnataka has been a state where much of the growth is concentrated in a single urban district, Bengaluru. Government resources into backward districts did improve growth in those districts, but the savings from that growth tend to be invested in Bengaluru. As a result, while the districts of northeast Karnataka did see some growth, it was nowhere near as rapid as that of other districts in the state, notably urban Bengaluru. As the income gap between northeast Karnataka and Bengaluru widened, the region was seen as remaining backwards despite governmental efforts. Being the politician who represented the region for over half a century, Kharge took much of the political blame. In the 2019 parliamentary election, Kharge was defeated for the first and only time in his political career.

With Kharge’s Dalit-led inclusive politics beginning to fray around the edges, it faces the same challenges in 2024 that it did five years earlier. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has put up the man who defeated Kharge in 2019 and he has been aggressively presenting his Dalit identity. His campaign has been built around an agitation against the desecration of an Ambedkar statue. Kharge has himself begun to articulate the Ambedkarite position more frequently than he did in the past. But his entire politics is centred around building consensus and does not sit easily with aggressive identity politics.

In stepping back from the fray, Mallikarjun Kharge has handed over the politics of his constituency to the next generation of his family. His son, Priyank Kharge, has used his position as minister in the Karnataka government to present a much more assertive Dalit identity. He often leads the charge against the BJP in the state assembly as well as on social media. He would want to marry the inclusiveness of his father’s politics with the assertion of a Dalit identity that has become an essential requirement in Karnataka’s Dalit politics.

Whether the next generation of Kharges can defend Mallikarjun Kharge’s electoral legacy will leave its mark on the national stature of the Congress president, but what happens in the Gulbarga parliamentary constituency will also be a commentary on whether the current emphasis on Dalit identity will necessarily wipe out other perspectives of Dalit politics. The political fortunes of this and other reserved constituencies will provide the next round of evidence in the never-ending interest in the sometimes conflicting perspectives of Gandhi and Ambedkar.

Narendar Pani is JRD Tata Chair visiting professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal

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