Congress party's choice of Karge as House leader raises questions

Congress party's choice of Karge as House leader raises questions
Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi arrives to address a news conference in New Delhi May 16, 2014.

NEW DELHI - The Congress party's choice of a low-profile regional politician to lead it in Parliament has once again raised questions about the role of vice-president Rahul Gandhi and sown doubts over whether the party can be an effective opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi surprised her own party on Monday by picking former minister Mallikarjun Kharge, 71, as the leader of its 44-strong group in the Lower House of Parliament. That effectively makes him the leader of opposition in the House although it is not clear if he will get the title officially since Congress won less than 10 per cent of the total 545 seats needed to qualify.

It is now up to the Speaker to decide on granting that status, which may come during the new Parliament session which starts today.

Congress leaders and political observers had expected Mr Gandhi, 43, to be named to the post as he has been projected as the future of the party.

The position would have given him a formal leadership role in Parliament and helped him gain experience, some leaders said.

"Sonia must have taken an appropriate decision after considering everything," Mr Veerappa Moily, who was a minister in the previous government, told The Straits Times yesterday. "I don't think Rahul Gandhi was reluctant or anything. He will continue to play an effective role in the party."

A popular Dalit leader in the southern state of Karnataka, Mr Kharge was labour and railways minister in Dr Manmohan Singh's Cabinet but was not among its most visible faces. A Gandhi family loyalist, he is a good communicator in his mother tongue of Kannada but not as proficient in Hindi, the common language for business in Parliament, or English.

He has won Karnataka state elections nine times and was a contender for the post of chief minister more than once. But his latest elevation has left many wondering about the party's strategy, coming as it does after a historic poll drubbing.

And even though there has been no official word about Mr Gandhi being offered the position and rejecting it, the fact that his mother did not choose him underlines his image of being a "reluctant heir", analysts said.

"This is a bad call," said Ms Aarthi Ramachandran, a political journalist and author of the 2012 book, Decoding Rahul Gandhi. "The Congress required someone who could have given a strong signal to help the party out of the situation it is in. If anything, this government needs a strong opposition. And here was a chance to make your mark as an opposition leader."

Mr Gandhi has also been considered an indifferent MP. Data from PRS Legislative Research, an independent research initiative, earlier this year showed he was his party's worst performer and among the bottom 30 MPs from across parties when it came to attendance in the Lower House.

As leader of opposition, he would have had a great opportunity to polish his skills in a House where 30 of 44 Congress MPs are not proficient in Hindi, if they can speak the national language at all, said a former Congress minister. "The Congress does not have the bench strength of people who are articulate and who will be able to raise issues. There is acute disappointment across the party with the choice of Kharge. It looks as if you have thrown in the towel even before the boxing match has started," said the former minister.

This article was first published on June 4, 2014.
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