‘BJP caused the Jan 26 violence to divide farmers’

BJP caused the January 26 violence to divide farmers, says Mallikarjun Kharge

Congress veteran Mallikarjun Kharge. Credit: PTI Photo

Congress veteran Mallikarjun Kharge, 78, has been picked as Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. DH’s Bharath Joshi caught up with Kharge to talk about his new role, the farm laws and the Congress’ leadership crisis. Excerpts: 

In a political career spanning 50 years, how significant is your new assignment? 

This is a role in the Opposition that isn’t new to me. I was an Opposition leader in Karnataka for 11 years, in which time I tried to agitate on various issues. We started the saga of staying overnight on protest in the legislature. Again, I got to be the leader in the Lok Sabha although I wasn’t keen on it since I’m not a North Indian (native Hindi-speaker). It was a challenging five years for me. When you’re in Opposition, it’s rare to earn a good name because the entire government is hostile and they're mostly prejudiced. PM Modi harbours personal prejudices. After my speech (in 2018), he said it could well be my last one in Parliament. He vowed to defeat me. I lost my 12th election (in 2019) after winning 11 times in a row. The regret is that I didn’t get recognition for the work I had done. But I see myself as a political student who is listening to what everyone has to say. That's an advantage. 

Does your outlook change in the Rajya Sabha, compared with what you did in Lok Sabha? 

We have to play the same role, be it Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha. When Ghulam Nabi Azad became Leader of the Opposition, our strength in the Rajya Sabha was 72. Now, it has come down to 35. So, naturally, there's a lot of difference. If 72 people were to stand up together, any law could've been stopped. Now, we have to take other political parties into confidence. Unity is necessary in these circumstances.

We hear voices of concern from your own party that they are unable to take a stand on many ideological issues. 

I don't agree. Religious matters have nothing to do with politics. If we keep using religion in politics, where's the end to that? Why should we need democracy and the Constitution? We fight on issues and based on whatever there’s in the Constitution on fundamental rights and directive principles. Take the Ram Mandir, for example. Has Congress destroyed any mandir when it was in power? You (BJP) create that to polarise votes. One man can construct a golden temple in Vellore, but you (BJP) can't do that. Instead, you ask people to give Rs 5-10, again to polarise voters. That's wrong. Because our (Congress) strength has declined, they go on passing laws. It might look like the Congress isn't doing anything. They have a brute majority. It's not that we don't put up a fight. 

On many occasions, you've had to ask your own party colleagues not to let go of the Congress’ ideology. Isn’t that a worrisome situation?

Usually, in party meetings, youngsters and new blood will be there. I became a Congress member 55 years ago, and I’ve every right to say that. Many of our Congress people have joined BJP. Where did they get that ideology from? People who enjoyed here (in Congress) for 20-30 years and whose parents were in Congress are now criticising Nehru and Gandhi. That’s bad. So, I have to tell people about our ideology to remind them. It's not that there's a collapse. 

On the farm laws, BJP repeatedly points to the Congress’ 2019 manifesto and says your party has double standards. 

They should read the manifesto properly, not out of context. What kind of reforms did we talk about? Did we say that Adani should construct all godowns and store unlimited supplies of essential commodities? Yes, reforms are needed, but you can’t err in them. A reform is that which does good to the farmer. Did we say that small farmers should give away their land to big companies under contract farming? Nearly 86.4% farmers have below two hectares of land, but they are producing sufficient food grains. That being the case, why is contract farming needed? What will happen if (companies) stop paying farmers after 1-2 years citing quality issues? And did we say we’d dismantle the mandis? These were systems conceived by our elders -- S Nijalingappa, SR Kanthi, Veerendra Patil, BD Jatti, etc. Were they not farmers themselves? 

Why then would you say the protests are confined to Punjab and Haryana? 

Procurement happens heavily -- almost 80% -- only in Punjab and Haryana. That's what comes into our public distribution system (PDS) or fair price shops. If this procurement stops, it will affect PDS. Why are farmers fighting for over 90 days? Because there are defects in all three laws. You (BJP) caused the January 26 violence to divide farmers; you also created splinter cells to say farmers are in support of the laws; and you are calling farmers Khalistanis, Pakistanis and saying there’s a foreign hand (in the protests). The fact is, these are well-educated farmers who are protesting. 

In all this, your party is suffering due to a leadership crisis, which the BJP picks on.

There's no leadership crisis. There's Sonia Gandhi and everybody accepts her leadership. All state units are independently doing their work. Don't worry about our crisis. You (BJP) focus on what you have to do for the poor and farmers. You are the one who lured our elected leaders to topple governments in Goa, Karnataka, Manipur, Madhya Pradesh and other states. It was under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership we fought neck-to-neck in Gujarat. 

It is said that your unhappiness with the one-upmanship between Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar in Karnataka makes you chant the 'unity' mantra. 

I'm not unhappy. Definitely, Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar will work unitedly. We have leaders to sort out differences. Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar have worked together in the past. Now, both of them have matured politically.

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