Can Kharge succeed Modi in 2024 to become India's first Dalit prime minister?

The resurgence of caste and social justice as issues in national politics could blunt the BJP's Hindu nationalist trump card in next year's election

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talking to Indian National Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge in the old parliament building, in New Delhi, in September. AP
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In 1977, Babu Jagjivan Ram came within a whisker of being named prime minister of India.

His Janata Party had created history just days earlier, when it handed the Indian National Congress its first general election defeat since the country became independent in 1947.

Had Mr Jagjivan Ram’s colleagues not balked at the idea of picking him as their leader, India would have had its first Dalit prime minister.

Dalits, who come from the lowest section of India’s traditional social hierarchy – or “caste system” – were for centuries oppressed and considered “untouchable” by much of society. It is perfectly conceivable, then, that Mr Jagjivan Ram’s ascension would have had a symbolic, and perhaps even substantive, impact on the country’s politics.

Why is this story relevant nearly half a century later? Because, with just seven months to go before the next general election, the name of another Dalit leader – Mallikarjun Kharge – is doing the rounds among India’s opposition parties to be their prime ministerial candidate.

It’s worth pointing out that what derailed Mr Jagjivan Ram’s historic bid wasn’t so much the question of whether India was or wasn’t ready for a Dalit head of government. The voters had, a decade earlier, broken convention by electing a woman prime minister in Indira Gandhi.

In fact, he was a victim of intense factionalism within the Janata Party. There were also concerns that he would be perceived as an establishment candidate who had only recently switched sides after enjoying decades-long stints in the Congress party and in government.

Much like the Janata Party was an amalgamation of disparate political groups hurriedly put together to take on the mighty Congress party, a 26-party alliance called “INDIA” was created this year with the aim of challenging the equally formidable Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in government since 2014.

As president of the Congress party – now in the opposition and the largest constituent of INDIA – one would assume that Mr Kharge would be a runaway choice for the top post, were the coalition to defeat the BJP in May. But that is yet not the case.

In 1977, the Janata Party opted against naming a prime ministerial candidate before the vote, to avoid making the election a personality contest against a towering Mrs Gandhi.

INDIA has similarly resisted calls to name its leader ahead of the 2024 vote.

First, the hypercompetitive rivalries that exist within the alliance make it nearly impossible for it to name a first among equals. Second, whoever gets picked would then have to face the one name Indians overwhelmingly favour as prime minister if polls are any indication: Narendra Modi, the two-term incumbent.

And yet there is a case for INDIA to announce Mr Kharge as its leader. Failing that, it should at least drop enough hints at regular intervals to the voter that his name is in the mix.

The reason for this isn’t just Mr Kharge’s vast experience in politics and government spanning five decades, or that he is a polyglot who can connect with voters across the length of India. It isn’t just his successful leadership of Congress over the past year, during which he rebuilt the party and helped it win key state assembly elections.

It is also his Dalit background. This is important at a time when caste-based politics, which has historically championed social justice, has gradually regained traction after almost a decade.

In 1977, the opposition didn’t need a prime ministerial candidate largely because it had one hot-button issue with which to corner the government of the day. That was the nearly two-year-long national emergency it had imposed, which included the curbing of civil liberties, jailing of opposition leaders and forced sterilisations, the last of which particularly appalled the average voter.

In 2024, the opposition does not have such a single, strong anti-incumbency sentiment to bank on.

What it does have is a potentially attractive message revolving around caste and social justice. In recent weeks, its leaders have pledged to work towards reconstituting caste-based reservations to more accurately reflect today’s population.

It needs to be noted here that the last nationwide caste census was conducted in 1931, which, INDIA says, drives home its point about the need to conduct a new pan-India survey. The results, it explains, will then lead to a more accurate and fair distribution of the reservations pie that entails government jobs, college admissions and welfare.

Whatever one’s opinions about affirmative action, this message of reconstituting caste-based reservations could resonate with millions of voters. Surveys conducted over the years have concluded that a majority of Indians identify themselves as belonging to one or the other constitutionally defined “backward class” and “scheduled caste” (or Dalit) groups.

If, indeed, INDIA succeeds in weaning away voters from the BJP on the issue of caste/class, it would represent a decisive shift in Indian politics. Because Indian politics is essentially centred on identity, two of the most dominant strands of which are religion and caste.

The BJP has always sought to use religious identity to unite Hindus – who for decades had been divided by caste affiliations – into one voting bloc. INDIA, on the other hand, is hoping it can reconsolidate the country’s myriad lower caste/class groups into one voting bloc, in the process breaking Mr Modi’s as-yet winning coalition.

The alliance has several stellar leaders representing the backward class and Dalit groups to choose from to articulate its agenda.

It is, of course, a fact that Mr Kharge’s successful political career is almost entirely based on merit, and not just his background. However, could there be a better messenger to take INDIA’s social justice message to the electorate than one of the country’s most visible Dalit leaders?

Published: October 31, 2023, 5:00 AM