Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s decision to campaign in the Karnataka assembly election in the northern part of the state from where she had won the Bellary Lok Sabha election in 1999 is a reflection of the seriousness with which the Congress views Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s electoral challenge with his impactful campaigning.
Even Congressmen grudgingly acknowledge in private that Congress president Rahul Gandhi is no match for Modi’s oratorical skills and his penchant for swaying the masses.
Sonia Gandhi has not campaigned for almost two years. She was absent from the election scene during electioneering in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Nagaland.
The last that Sonia was into active campaigning was during a road show in Varanasi on August 2, 2016, ahead of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections when she had to be rushed to hospital in New Delhi due to ill health.
While Sonia commands some loyalty in the Bellary region, she has not nursed that constituency and can hardly expect any magical results. Coincidentally, Modi would be campaigning in the same district on the day Sonia addresses her rally. He would indeed have some wisecracks up his sleeve.
Cleverly, Sonia Gandhi’s campaign was chosen to be in Vijayapura, located around 40 km from Basavana Bagewadi, the birthplace of 12th century philosopher, social reformer and poet Basavanna, the founder of the Lingayat movement. The idea apparently was to strike an emotional chord with the numerically-strong community.
The Lingayats constitute a strategically-important vote bank because they are nearly 17 per cent of the southern state’s population. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief ministerial candidate Yeddyurappa is a Lingayat, the Siddaramaiah government began efforts to wrench them away from the BJP on the eve of elections by announcing his government’s decision to seek minority religion status for the politically influential Veerashaiva-Lingayat community from the Centre.
The BJP has recovered some ground by competing with the Congress in wooing the Lingayat seers but there can be little doubt that the Lingayats will not vote en bloc with the BJP.
At the time of the last Assembly elections, the BJP had forsaken Yeddyurappa due to corruption charges against him. That had led to him forming his own party which cut into BJP votes. The effect that had had on the BJP’s traditionally-strong hold on that community was significant which propelled the party leadership to rehabilitate him as party chief.
In the caste-polarised politics of Karnataka, this would be a test case of BJP’s clout with the Lingayats, with the return of Yeddyurappa and the Congress’ new-found acceptability in view of Siddaramaiah’s trumpcard of seeking special status for the Lingayats as a religious minority.
Whether an ailing Sonia Gandhi’s wooing of the community by making an exception of campaigning in their area would impress them enough to vote for the Congress only time will tell. But there surely will be some propaganda mileage to gain for the Congress.
Sonia is accompanied on the tour by her daughter Priyanka and son-in-law Robert Vadra. Whether Priyanka would pitch in with a speech at the rally would be interesting to watch.
The limitations of Rahul’s oratory, his inability to connect with the masses and the absence of any other bigwig Congress campaigners have been handicaps for the party. Siddaramaiah is a star campaigner but he needs support from the high command. Sonia’s participation will raise the morale of Congress cadres but would that be enough is the moot question.
It would also be watched whether Sonia makes an attempt to build bridges with Kumaraswamy and his Janata Dal=Secular through secret parleys and/or through her speech. The turnout at Sonia’s rally would also perhaps determine whether the longtime Congress chief would decide to address more rallies in the state.