Apart from being the Leader of Opposition (LoP) in Lok Sabha, and the Congress' voice on many issues in the Lower House, Mallikarjun Kharge has also been the party's man Friday for several years.
A trusted lieutenant of the party and, particularly, the Gandhi family, Kharge has been at the centre of a number of messy situations, including in Mumbai, where Congress has often been divided and subject to infighting. Kharge has been called in to resolve the situation a number of times.
According to Congress leaders in the state, Kharge has the ability to juggle between several veterans in Maharashtra, including state Congress chief Ashok Chavan and former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. It is the ego tussle between senior leaders that has troubled the state's Congress for long, and Kharge has the ear of each one of them. That is also probably the reason why he was appointed as the Maharashtra state in-charge for the party in 2018.
However, Maharashtra is not the only state where Kharge has proved his mettle as a deft negotiator who listens to local leaders and bridges the gap between them and the high command. Recently, in Karnataka, after the announcement of the seat-sharing pact between the Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress, many party leaders were reportedly unhappy with the high command's decision to hand over Mandya and Tumkur seats to the JD(S). Kharge, according to reports, had been the man who again bridged the gap between the party's central leadership and the state-level leaders, negotiating on behalf of both to come to a conclusion acceptable to all.
The 75-year-old, who hails from Karnataka, was being considered a CM probable during the Karnataka Assembly polls in 2017, with reports suggesting that his background as a Dalit leader and his seniority worked in his favor. Kharge, however, had said he would much rather be the CM because of his seniority than his caste, a comment that had drawn appreciation.
Appreciation and a taunt also came from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, who, during a speech in Lok Sabha, said while Kharge is a "decent" and "simple" human being, he keeps on "dissent"-ing. Kharge and Modi have been associated otherwise, as well, in that both served on the selection panel, comprising the PM, Kharge and Justice AK Sikri, that sacked former Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) chief Alok Verma. Kharge had voted against the sacking, the rest voted for.
Born in 1942, Kharge's career started off as a student union leader and then as a labour organiser in Karnataka. He joined the Congress in 1969, and gradually rose through the ranks of the party. Observers point out that rising in a Karnataka unit dominated by Vokkaligas and Lingayat was no mean feat, but Kharge had enough political acumen and ability to rise on to become the party's trusted man in both the national and the state capitals.
Entering the assembly for the first time in 1972 from the Gurmitkal constituency, Kharge has never been defeated and has held a number of ministerial posts in the state government. He entered Parliament in 2009 after winning Gulbarga Lok Sabha constituency, a feat he repeated in 2014.
While Kharge has helmed the Ministry of Railways and the Ministry of Labour and Employment before, he missed out on a CM post for his home state three times: once, in 1999 to SM Krishna, then in 2004 to N Dharam Singh and finally in 2017, to HD Kumaraswamy. According to reports, Kharge extended support to all of them, but has largely remained out of the recent Karnataka coalition politics.
The Congress veteran has also been embroiled in controversy in his home state recently and has been accused of playing "divisive politics" to build a career for his son Priyank. A number of senior Congress leaders and legislators from Karnataka have recently resigned from the party, all citing Kharge and his politics as the reason. The latest to resign was A B Maalakaraddi, and before him went former ministers Malikayya Guttedar, Baburao Chinchansur and Vaijanth Patil, all joining the BJP.
Kharge is a representative of the Congress within the Mahagathbandhan as well, as was displayed when he was sent to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's United Opposition rally in Kolkata. He has, however, indicated that the coming elections might be his last. If that is the case, Congress will lose an undefeated Member of Parliament, with an eye and an ear on and for everyone.