Bengaluru: Priyank Kharge, the 38-year-old son of Congress veteran Mallikarjun Kharge, is the youngest Cabinet minister in Karnataka. "As a son, it's my dream to see my father as chief minister," he had said recently, sparking furious speculation that Kharge senior is about to return to state politics. Needlessly, as it turned out, as Priyank soon added that he was speaking only as a son. "We are all focussed on winning the elections," he added.
In a government that was seen as having slept through its first four years, Priyank built a reputation of being proactive. Inducted in June 2016 as minister of state with independent charge, he set about revitalising the IT industry. An animator and start-up entrepreneur himself before entering politics, Priyank got his department to fund start-ups by disbursing grants — a first in the country — in tourism, biotech, agritech and other fields. His reward was a promotion to Cabinet rank.
Is there a divide between the Congress party's old guard and newcomers, including Chief Minister Siddaramaiah?
There is no rift. There is nothing like old guard and new guard. We are all Congressmen. It is all about making the right choices. We are looking for the magic number and we will all work for the party. The high command took the final call on whom to give tickets and who not to.
The chief minister has inducted controversial figures into the party, including businessman Ashok Kheny who has a track record of irregularities.
The chief minister knows what is best for the party.
Why should people give the incumbent Congress another term?
The Congress government delivered on all fronts. There have been no charges of corruption against any minister. Despite the dus percent (10 percent) and 'Seedha Rupaiah' jibes by the prime minister, nothing has been substantiated. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath unleashed a vicious environment in the state during his campaign visits; it shows the BJP's mindset of communalising everything.
What is your assessment of the BJP?
The BJP has completely lost the plot. Its chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa is tainted, and the choice has come in for criticism from former Lokayukta Santosh Hegde himself. And the party is putting out advertisements asking people to vote for it for a corruption-free state! Let me tell you, of the three men featuring in the advertisement (Modi, Amit Shah and Yedyurappa) one has blood on his hands, while two have gone to jail. There is nothing more that the Congress can stress on. How can they offer corruption-free governance given such a track record?
Has the Congress usurped the BJP's Hindutva agenda by asking Congress president Rahul Gandhi to embark on temple trips?
Rahul Gandhi has visited temples, churches and mosques. Why is this getting highlighted? He visited Badrinath and no one questioned him. Will Narendra Modi visit churches and mosques? No, because we practice the Constitution while they (BJP members) question it.
Your government's decision to give Lingayats minority religion status is being seen as another kind of appeasement policy.
We have only approved a 60-year-old demand from the Lingayat community, we have not appeased them. Even when Yeddyurappa was chief minister, he had recommended it. But it was rejected then. Currently, it does not suit the BJP's narrative. We have not done it with an eye on elections.
What else will the Congress bank on?
The Congress narrative is more on development. Our vote has always been on the development plank. Our slogans have been about empowering people.
With reference to Article 371J, which provides for special status to Hyderabad-Karnataka region, a gift by the outgoing UPA II, there is a feeling that a Congress-ruled state could have done more for development of the region.
There are 40 constituencies in Hyderabad-Karnataka covered under this special status. I agree that the first phase was slow but now it has picked up pace, as we had to understand what all could be done. It was sped up with 30,000 people getting jobs, quality education and development. The whole place has changed for the better. There has been a lot of focus here.
Sidharamiah's ministry has been at the receiving end of people's ire on social media, likening it to be a "sleeping government" for four years and suddenly waking up in the last 12 months.
Our government would not have achieved so much and delivered almost all the manifesto promises if we had started work only in the last one year. Some of the projects took time, but we had popular schemes running throughout the five-year period where the focus was to make the state hunger-free and malnutrition-free, and its citizens debt-free. There was also an unprecedented drought and our focus was to dig ponds, recharge ground water by filling up water bodies and completing all pending irrigation projects which alone cost Rs 55,000 crore. All these beneficieries will not forget the Congress, as we have taken up projects and schemes for everybody: Rural, semi urban and urban residents.
There was a delay in implementing some schemes as our government had inherited a huge burden due to financial mismanagement of the two previous regimes (20 months of JD(S) and five years of BJP). It took a year to come back, and today, Bengaluru is known as the start-up capital while the state has marched ahead in various fields. We did not have the time to do enough for Bengaluru infrastructure which is a challenge, but we have announced our plans and a part of the work has already been done in terms of roads, flyovers, metro etc.
Is it true that you and many of your partymen were looking for safe constituencies to contest from?
This is part of the fake news that BJP has put out. They speak so much about fake news and they themselves are forging Congress leaders’ signatures and circulating fake lists. Why should we run away from contests? It is not the BJP which will decide, but the people. In every constituency, irrespective of the party the MLA represents, the government has put in huge investments on development. In my constituency of Chittapur in Kalburgi (Gulbarga), my government has spent Rs 2,700 crore on development. I have worked very hard and so have my colleagues.
There is a feeling within the Congress that between you and your father, you have appropriated the entire Hyderabad-Karnataka region for yourselves while throwing out those who did not fit in with your brand of politics.
If you are talking specifically about Malikayya Guttedar, he has been a party hopper who has now been welcomed into the BJP. When Kharge (senior) was elected to the Lok Sabha, we got very few votes from his constituency, which indicates he was working against the Congress. Voters will take a call on who should be their leaders. My father is one of the tallest leaders and both of us have been disciplined soldiers of the Congress.
You have had a meteoric rise for a first-time MLA.
It has actually been a roller-coaster ride. Remember that I lost my first election (a bypoll after his father became an MP). I have worked under two NSUI presidents and four state youth Congress presidents. I was fortunate that I was an asset to the government. My work in the past two-and-a-half years should speak for itself.
Do you operate your own social media accounts?
Yes, I tweet and post Facebook posts myself. I feel it is tricky to outsource it. I do it whenever I am free — between campaigning or while travelling.
What is the number the party is looking at realistically?
We hope to get 120 seats or thereabouts (it has 124 in the outgoing Assembly).
(Anil Budur Lulla is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)
Updated Date: Apr 24, 2018 09:33 AM