"Untouchable" For President — Could A Dalit Leader Unseat Modi?
India goes to the polls next year, with a united opposition hoping to unseat Prime Minister Modi after 10 years in power. Mallikarjun Kharge, who may be the best candidate, is from India's "lowest" caste system.
DELHI — If Novak Djokovic, the greatest grass-court player ever, can be defeated, then India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, can be vanquished in next year’s court of the people. Modi has been in power since 2014 and appears to have a tight grip on power.
But even though India's opposition political landscape remains extremely untidy, it still has a Carlos Alcaraz up its sleeve. His name is Mallikarjun Kharge. If the opposition leaders play the game intelligently, India could have its first Dalit prime minister next May. Dalit — previously known as "untouchable" — is the lowest stratum of India's deeply entrenched caste system.
The messiness of the opposition’s unity or lack of it revolves round the vexatious issue of leadership. That issue, itself, is predicated on a few givens.
The leaders of 26 Indian opposition parties are meeting to firm up their strategy to take on Modi's party in the next year's general election. Taking on Modi's BJP, which won more than 300 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha (the lower house of India's parliament) in 2019, will be a big task, even for a united opposition. The question still is who will lead the opposition.
A political dynasty
Rahul Gandhi — from India's Gandhi family dynasty — is a very big elephant in the room. There are powerful, vested interests around him and these individuals have become used to exercising power without authority within the Congress; they would be less than excited about any stratagem that would take away the limelight from their principal. And, the same goes for his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Her own sense of entitlement remains insatiable and untamed.
The very anti-thesis to Modi and a healthy and desirable antidote at that.
On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi has made it abundantly clear that he is not at all interested in the nitty-gritty of running a big organization, let alone the vast Union government. He is not wired to be a manager, even though he craves the trappings of a "supreme leader." Like his mother, he has no appetite for the grinding and messy business of organizational chores and protocols and procedures.
How then can the opposition leaders reconcile themselves to a Congress leadership, while coming to terms with their own limited numbers?
Perhaps, a non-Gandhi at the helm of a Congress-led coalition would appear to be not only the most feasible but also the most saleable answer. Hence, the importance of Mallikarjun Kharge. He has proved himself to be a sober, if unflamboyant, leader of a faction-ridden Congress party. If he does not sparkle with brilliance, he does exhibit qualities of being a reconciliator and a purveyor of common sense. The very antithesis to Modi and a healthy and desirable antidote at that.
A photograph of Mallikarjun Kharge facing a crowd.
The haves and the have-nots
Modi’s credentials as a champion of the poor, the have-nots and the underclasses acquired a sharp cutting edge only because his image-managers cleverly pitted him against an "entitled" and "privileged" Rahul Gandhi. All these advantages get blunted if Modi has a face off against a Dalit leader like Mallikarjun Kharge.
The simple challenge before the opposition leaders is to reassure the nation that collectively they have the wisdom and the collegiate skills to give India a stable and sensitive governing arrangement. There is no need for super-strong and overweening prime ministers.
No citizen can possibly affirm that India is less "corrupt" than it was in 2014.
It is possible to suggest that India has had its fill of “decisive government” and “strong leaders.” The opposition leaders will have to educate the masses about the flaws and failures of the past 10 years. Modi talked big, promised to stare down the Chinese and ended up inviting aggression. China’s troops are now ensconced on much more Indian territory than they had access to during the previous "weak" regimes. Pakistan remains as intractable as ever, and there are daily reminders that the entire North-East has been spectacularly mismanaged by Modi’s "strong" government in New Delhi.
Despite all the exaggerated talk of the fight against corruption and the corrupt, no citizen can possibly affirm that India is less "corrupt" than it was in 2014. If anything, given the exponential outbreak in crony capitalism, it is obvious that in all BJP-administered states corruption has become the new normal. The sale and purchase of public offices and elected legislators is now palmed off as normal or even virtuous.