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India Can Have its First Dalit Prime Minister in 2024

After running a transactional regime for 10 years, Modi is no longer the messiah of the ‘common man.’ His credentials as a champion of the poor were based on being pitted against an ‘entitled’ Rahul Gandhi. All these advantages get blunted if he faces off against a Dalit leader like Mallikarjun Kharge.
Congress MP Mallikarjun Kharge speaks in the Rajya Sabha during the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament, in New Delhi, December 14, 2022. Photo: PTI

If Novak Djokovic, the greatest grass-court player ever, can be defeated, then Narendra Modi, too, can be vanquished in next year’s court of the people. And, though the 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.

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.

First, no non-Congress political party can win more than 40 Lok Sabha seats on its own, and therefore cannot lay any claim to prime ministerial leadership. Nor would such a claim be conceded by anyone.

Second, while the centrality of the Congress party to any non-BJP, non-Modi alternative is beyond question, the opposition leaders will not countenance any suggestion of Rahul Gandhi as their joint prime ministerial face. There are too many bad memories and too much of bad blood between the Gandhis and the other political leaders for even a sullen acceptance of his stewardship. And, the Congress too returns the favour. It simply will not be amenable to have a Mamta Banerjee or an Arvind Kejriwal as prime minister.

Third, notwithstanding all the enthusiasm and front-page headlines about and since the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi has yet to cross the threshold of acceptability. He remains an eccentric political persona. The middle classes will not back his prime ministerial claims simply because of his surname. The long and short of it is that India is not prepared to trade a Narendra Modi for a Rahul Gandhi.

Admittedly, Rahul Gandhi 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.

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 organisation, leave 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 organisational 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 anti-thesis to Narendra Modi and a healthy and desirable antidote at that.

Young leaders like Akhilesh Yadav or Tejashvi Yadav or an Arvind Kejriwal or even Mamta Banerjee may calculate that they would be better off with a Kharge arrangement than trying to survive another five years of the Modi-Shah dadagiri.  By now it should be clear to every regional leader in the country that there is a relentless logic to the Modi-Shah-Yogi combine that would mow down any and all regional players, friend or foe.  There may still be a few like a Naveen Patnaik or Chandra Babu Naidu or a Sukhbhir Badal who think that they have the elbow room to buy peace with the ruling cabal; but their survival would entirely be on Modi’s terms. And Modi can dictate those terms only as long as he appears to be the winning horse.

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. If Modi benefitted from being thought of as the first ‘OBC’ prime minister, then the entire Ambedkarite constituency can be expected to get galvanised at the prospect of India’s first Dalit prime minister.   

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.

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 ten years. Modi talked big, promised to stare down the Chinese with his ‘lal aankh’, 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, the Kashmiris remain sullen and unreconciled to New Delhi’s overlordship, 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 –  as ‘Chanakaya niti’.

After ten years of presiding over a transactional regime, Modi is no longer the messiah of the ‘common man.’ He is vulnerable to the charge of being the mukhota or mask of the global and super-rich Indian elites, though he still has the “mandir” card up his sleeve. To begin with, opposition leaders have to summon the requisite astuteness to realise that Modi can be dislodged only by a challenge from a new social coalition, led by a Dalit.

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