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Message from Karnataka: Mallikarjun Kharge must take centre stage

As has been said a million times, a year is an eternity in politics. Any one of a hundred different things can upend the calculations of the smartest visualiser of the 2024 election scene. All, however, will agree that Karnataka has pumped life into speculation about 2024. Moreover, speculation is leading to serious discussion.

Those with proven records of political success in different parts of India, people like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal, seem to have concluded from the Karnataka verdict that defeating Modi in 2024 may now be a distinct possibility. Simultaneously, the cry for Opposition unity in 2024, which was heard much before the Karnataka polling, has become louder.

Also Read | The Express View on Karnataka election: Bengaluru sends a message

Also, Karnataka seems to have indicated how the BJP might be defeated elsewhere, and at the national level. Addressing reporters after meeting D Raja of the CPI, Sharad Pawar thus spoke of “the Karnataka template” which, he said, needs “to be implemented in other states”. Pawar also spoke of the requirement of a common minimum programme on which all opposition parties could agree.

Although public discussions are yet to take place, there seems to be a rapidly rising consensus for uniting the Opposition under the banner of an unqualified identification with the hardships of the majority of India’s people. Rahul Gandhi’s language in his brief remarks after the Congress’s remarkable triumph in Karnataka pointed to what possibly may end up as the heart of this consensus.

Also Read | Karnataka results: What lessons the loss holds for BJP

“The strength of poor people,” said Rahul Gandhi, “defeated the power of crony capitalists. This will happen in all states.” The message seemed to be that offering shoulders and favourable policies to the unemployed, and to mothers, sisters and wives groaning under rising prices, could become the winning theme that unites people beyond caste and religion.

Is this the start of a new narrative? Who knows? It can, however, be argued that two of the most effective political lines recently heard in India emerged from the children of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi. The first was a remark, now quite famous, that Rahul made during the Bharat Jodo Yatra: “I am opening a dukaan of mohabbat in this bazaar of nafrat”.

The second was his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s comment, smilingly offered during the Karnataka campaign, on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated emphasis on the abuses he said he was receiving. “This is the first prime minister I’ve seen,” said Priyanka, “who instead of listening to the hurts of the people, tells them, ‘Please listen to my hurts’.”

Also Read | Ashutosh Varshney writes: What the outcome in Karnataka will achieve — and what it will not

If, as people now increasingly expect, opposition to the BJP picks up momentum not only in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh but also nationally, a key question will certainly be thrown at it: “Who is your prime ministerial face?”

This was exactly the question asked in 1977, when, with Indira Gandhi unexpectedly ending the Emergency she had imposed and ordering new elections, an oft-quarrelling Opposition came together to contest against her. “Will Morarji Desai be your PM? Or Charan Singh? Or Jagjivan Ram?” she asked.

In 1977, the Opposition replied by saying to the people of India, “You choose the MPs. They will choose the PM.” That answer sufficed in 1977, and a similar answer might well suffice in 2024.

On the other hand, wisdom this time might possibly lie in a different sort of answer. And perhaps, who knows, that answer might again be connected to Karnataka.

Also Read | Why Karnataka rejected the BJP

Despite its striking victory in Karnataka and an earlier success in Himachal Pradesh, the Congress is nowhere near its earlier position of all-India dominance. Other parties that also oppose the BJP, parties including the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, DMK in Tamil Nadu, JD(U) and RJD in Bihar, NCP and Shiv Sena (Uddhav) in Maharashtra, SP in UP, CPM in Kerala, BRS in Telangana, and AAP in Punjab and Delhi, are independent entities, proud of their struggles and histories. While they may stand alongside the Congress in opposing the BJP, they will not accept an inferior status.

But if, as is likely, the Congress wins more Lok Sabha seats than any other single party opposing the BJP, it would seem reasonable, in 2024, to give to the Congress the leadership of the Opposition, or, if the BJP is defeated, of the government.

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Mallikarjun Kharge is the elected president of the Congress. As an 80-year-old, he invites respect, not rivalry. He is seasoned in politics and experienced in governance. In recent months, moreover, Indians across India have noticed what Kannadigas always knew, that Kharge is also a wise and effective speaker — in Hindi, Urdu, Kannada and English.

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The possibility, remote or not, of a Dalit from South India becoming India’s Prime Minister would stir millions across India and the world. And it would lend credibility to the assertion that it is time in India for a government that supports those who are struggling — and for a government that unites all the people of India.

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Rajmohan Gandhi’s latest book is India After 1947: Recollections & Reflections

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