Mallikarjun Kharge’s Ism: An Ambedkarite manifesto for the Modi years

A biographical essay on the unique political challenges facing leaders from the most marginalised communities.

WrittenBy:Sudipto Mondal
Illustration of Mallikarjun Kharge with a Buddha statue and a portrait of Dr Ambedkar.

Congress President Mallikharjun Kharge has fought all his life against efforts to reduce him to his immediate identity. And yet there are constant attempts to project him merely as a Dalit leader. 

Why is Kharge reticent about invoking his identity in a bid for power, when even a dominant caste OBC like Modi doesn't shy away from it? This biographical essay by Sudipto Mondal on Kharge sheds light on the unique political challenges facing leaders from the most marginalised communities.  

The 10,000-word essay explores Kharge's beginnings as a radical anti-caste activist who helped start the country’s first organisation named after Ambedkar. What made him abandon an outfit that believed in armed revolt and join Indira Gandhi’s Congress (I) in 1969? Why was there an attempt on his life after he joined the Congress? And what lessons do Kharge’s journey as an Ambedkarite Buddhist hold as we grapple with Modi and Hindutva?


An angry Congress ticket aspirant from a southern state barged into the room just as we were about to start our meeting with Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge on March 26 at his Bengaluru home ‘Samyak’. The man clearly wanted to embarrass his party president in front of us and spoke loudly about his 35-year association with the Congress and how he had been cheated. When Kharge requested us to give them some privacy, the leader raised his voice even more. We could hear him clearly behind the heavy door, “I will go to the media!” 

Brushing past us as he stormed out, the man did something that was strikingly naked in its Brahminism. He invoked his god and cursed Kharge saying something like ‘god will show you’. Kharge burst out laughing in response and called out to him to come back and see sense. 

A man speckled with lucky charms, invoking god in a room adorned with images of The Buddha and BR Ambedkar. The angry zealot’s curse seemed to bounce off the laughing Buddhist. Kharge was still smiling when we sat down again to talk and dismissed the whole episode as “drama.”  

Outside, a former union minister was waiting impatiently with his entourage. 

He wanted a ticket for his relative and had made some damaging public statements about the party and its president when his demand was rejected. Before we could get a word in, one of Kharge’s assistants came in with news that Ludhiana Congress MP and former Chief Minister Beant Singh’s grandson Surinder Bittu had jumped to the BJP. Next, another assistant came in with a ringing phone. 

It was a call from one of the country’s senior most Congress leaders. Kharge sent the assistant away to give us the 10 minutes he had promised. But the man came in again in a few minutes saying the leader wouldn't stop calling.  

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