In his play Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare has Brutus urging his comrades to seize a fleeting opportunity in an armed conflict. “There is a tide in the affairs of men / which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,” he declares. The Congress Party had such a moment in history when it was to find a leader to succeed Rahul Gandhi.

Four names seem to have been discussed: Mallikarjun Kharge, Mukul Wasnik, Jyothiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot. In the current circumstances, the latter two – both foreign educated “born with a silver spoon” dynasts – would have been lacerated by the pracharak army. Even Mukul Wasnik, a bit of a lesser dynast, and reputedly backed by Ahmed Patel, might not have been able to stand up to the political bullies and liars ranged on the opposite side.

Mallikarjun Kharge might have well been the Congress president who could have braved the saffron flood and taken the Congress to a new political and ideological haven. But it is not to be so. The courtiers had their way and once again Sonia Gandhi was asked to helm the leaky boat.

Moment of opportunity

Most of us do not fulfill our potential because we are not at the right place when an opportunity to do so arrives. Whether it is a hero in war or a political leader who achieves greatness, it is all a matter of being where the action is. It is pure kismet. Take for instance the case of Kharge, the former leader of the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha (2014-’19). He would never have been near centerstage if the Congress Party had not been decimated in 2014.

That election saw Rahul Gandhi clearly projected as the national alternative to Narendra Modi and he got thumped. Never a confident leader and at best a diffident speaker, with little of what makes a person charismatic, Rahul Gandhi would have hardly been a foil to Modi, a communicator par excellence and a rabble rouser without peer. So the Congress Party reached down to pluck Mallikarjun Kharge from obscurity mostly because he was the only one other leader with some standing in the party.

Mallikarjun Kharge with Rahul Gandhi. Credit: IANS

Kharge is a Dalit from Gulbarga who began life as a labor organiser. He joined the Congress Party in 1969 and rose slowly in the party dominated by the Vokkaligas and Lingayats. He came to Parliament in 2009 after the Congress debacle in the state in 2008. He was the Minister of Railways in the Manmohan Singh government in June 2013, not long enough to make a mark or make his presence felt. And in the intensely feudal durbar of the Congress Party who can afford to make his or her presence felt?

On June 12, 2014, replying to the agenda outlined by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government in the Presidential address, he said that the NDA was merely repackaging work done by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. He asked the Modi government to implement the promises it had made without arrogance. Kharge invoked Mahabharata and said though Pandavas were few in number compared to Kauravas; still they could not be defeated.

An articulate leader

Kharge went down point by point on the new government’s agenda and said it only highlighted achievements of the previous UPA government over the last ten years. “Nothing new has been said...we need to put the record straight,” he said in a 45-minute speech. “Modi only repackages what is already done...All these things have been repackaged in the name of Modi.”

The speech announced the arrival of a new Dalit leader from the South, and a new articulate voice in parliament. It was a powerful speech, coming in the wake of a huge electoral debacle. The BJP benches lost some of the ebullience and leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav went over to congratulate him.

But Kharge got his chance to really shine on August 12, 2015, and he showed that when the hour was on hand, he was the man when he took on the redoubtable Sushma Swaraj on the Lalit Modi matter. He spoke in the simple Hindustani brogue of the Deccan. There was nothing flowery, but he made his points with deft rapier thrusts. He pointed out that the minister had not even consulted the Indian High Commissioner in United Kingdom or senior officials like Foreign Secretary on the issue of the fugitive cricket administrator Lalit Modi’s travel papers. It was entirely her initiative and done by her stealthily bypassing all established procedures.

When Swaraj tried to hide behind a technicality by claiming of there being no proof or record of allegations made by Congress, Kharge pointed that there had been verbal communication between the External Affairs Minister and British MP Keith Vaz, hence there was no record of the same. Kharge said that Swaraj herself had accepted to have spoken to Vaz for Lalit Modi’s travel papers, and there was no point in claiming there was any record. He deflated her and the whole country heard the hiss of the escaping bluster. Kharge then twisted the knife deep and hard by pointing to Prime Minister Modi’s silence on the matter.

Rahul Gandhi also came good that day. The diffidence and hesitations were not visible. When he recounted the conversation Swaraj and he had in the lobby, he was fully believable and the minister was exposed. Gandhi narrated (and Swaraj did not contradict him), that she had held his arm and asked him why he was angry with her. Then Gandhi told her he was not annoyed with her, but was disappointed that she was not telling the truth.

Despite this, it was clearly Kharge’s day, a fact that would not have gone unnoticed by the inner coterie. When the hour came, he was the man.

At another time, he dismissed then Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s attempt to paint the Congress as anti-Dalit by claiming that Babsaheb Ambedkar, unhappy about how the Constitution turned out, wanted to leave the country with a scathing riposte: “Dr Ambedkar never wanted to leave the country. He was part of the country. You Aryans came from outside. We have been putting up with your ways for 5,000 years.”

The danger man

What the Congress needs now is an ideological and social contrast to the BJP, someone who can dismiss RSS mythology with the contempt it deserves. The Congress stable of princelings cannot do it. Clearly the RSS sees Kharge as the danger man. Till Sonia Gandhi announced herself as the Congress president again, the RSS bot factories were churning out garbage about how Kharge was worth Rs 1,000 crores, then Rs 10, 000 crore.

Coming from a party that spent over Rs 50 000 crores in two consecutive Lok Sabha elections, and whose leader appears dressed in an insignia suit and Gucci eyeglasses, this is rich.

When somebody like Kharge points this out, it will cut deep. Unfortunately, the Congress behaves like the latter-day Mughals, with a durbar in place of an empire.