The visit of the president of the All India Congress Committee, Sonia Gandhi, to Bangalore on Saturday, irrespective of her preoccupation with the ongoing budget session of the Parliament, is expected to kick-start preparations of the Congress for the next round of Legislative Assembly elections due in the State in May 2013.

Ms. Gandhi's brief visit to the State, primarily to Tumkur, to ostensibly pay her respects to the seer of the Siddaganga Math on his 105th birthday celebrations, is obviously intended to woo the dominant Lingayat community, which has distanced itself from the Congress over the past two decades — after the then Chief Minister Veerendra Patil was summarily removed by Rajiv Gandhi in 1990 and S. Bangarappa was selected to succeed him.

It is another matter that Veerendra Patil, Rajiv Gandhi and S. Bangarappa are no more. The last of the single-party government's run by the Congress here was between 1999 and 2004 under the Chief Ministership of S.M. Krishna, who belongs to the Vokkaliga community. Of the Chief Ministers who belonged to the Veerashaiva community, S. Nijalingappa, S.R. Kanti and B.D. Jatti were from the Congress while J.H. Patel was from the Janata Dal.

Given the invitees to the guruvandana programme, who among others are all seers of some of the powerful Lingayat maths in Karnataka, and with this meeting to be followed up with an address of the State Congress leaders by the AICC president, it is evident that the Congress is going all out to woo a powerful caste group in the State, which is generally perceived to be a strong supporter of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is quite clear that the Congress is seeking to gain lost ground thanks to the deep divisions in the BJP, which came to power in May 2008 largely with the support of the Veerashaiva community.

Their clout

The Lingayats and Vokkaligas are the two major communities that have dominated State politics over the last five decades, and they constitute nearly 35 per cent of the State's population, which is a little over six crores. While the Lingayats are spread across the State and consequently have a better stronghold over the electoral arena, the Vokkaliga domination is limited to around five of the 30 districts of the State.

A signal

Sources in the Congress party told The Hindu that the visit of the all-important leader of the party to the Siddaganga Math will send the right signals to the Lingayat voters that the Congress too cares for them. With caste-based religious leaders wielding enormous clout in the State, political parties have been courting them in different ways. “We do not want to lag behind, and the visit of the AICC president to the all-important Lingayat math in the State will do a world of good to the Congress party,” said the source.

It is common knowledge that the former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa has been assiduously maintaining contact with the Siddaganga seer although the latter has repeatedly made it a point to convey that he is apolitical and committed only to the cause of education and the mass mid-day meals programme. Although Ms. Gandhi's visit to Tumkur is stated as an apolitical programme, it should be noted that it has the backing of Congressmen, and the invite for the programme has been restricted to select political leaders.

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