Bangalore: The Congress is going all out to woo a powerful caste group in Karnataka that is generally perceived to be a strong supporter of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) even as the latter dithers in setting its house in order. State Congress leaders are set for a major score as they have succeeded in roping in party president Sonia Gandhi to be present at a birthday function of Sri Shivakumara Swami of Sri Siddaganga Mutt, who has a large following among the politically powerful Lingayat community.
With caste-based religious leaders wielding enormous clout in the state, political parties have been assiduously courting them in different ways. The BJP, which came to power for the first time in the southern state in May 2008, took the cake in this exercise as it tried to win over sect-based religious heads.
The BJP government simply doled out millions of rupees every year in the last five state budgets to various 'mutts' or religious institutions. Its first chief minister B S Yeddyurappa, who was forced by the BJP to quit over mining bribery charges in July last year, started the trend.
His successor D V Sadananda Gowda continued it in his first, and perhaps last, budget as assembly elections are due in April-May next year.
Though the Congress and Janata Dal-Secular parties have been ridiculing the BJP for being generous to these mutts at the cost of the tax payer, they too find it hard to completely ignore them, particularly when elections are near.
Lingayats and Vokkaligas are the two caste groups that have dominated Karnataka politics for decades, though they form just about 17 percent and 16 percent of the state's total population of around 61 million.
Lingayats, once strong backers of the Congress, are believed to have shifted their support to the BJP over the years following alleged neglect of the community by the party, particularly after then chief minister Veerendra Patil was unceremoniously ordered out by the party command in 1990.
The Siddaganga seer is a centenarian and celebrated his 105th birthday on April 1 at his mutt in Siddaganga, about 60 km north of Bangalore. A special birthday fete is being organised there on April 28 at which Sonia Gandhi will be present, according to state Congress chief G Parameshwara.
The Congress general secretary in charge of Karnataka, Madhusudan Mistry, and Parameshwara have already met the seer and discussed the arrangements for Sonia Gandhi's visit. Though billed as a non-political visit as she will be visiting the mutt to greet the seer on his 105th birthday, it will, the party hopes, yield political dividends as the ruling BJP is battered by scandals, corruption and a determined bid by Yeddyurappa to become chief minister again in view of his so-called clout over the Lingayat community.
It will also placate the Lingayat leaders who are still in the state Congress unit as they have been openly demanding better positions and greater say in running the party affairs.
With BJP national leaders unclear about the hold Yeddyurappa has on his caste group and the possibility of factional fights intensifying in the party's state unit, the Congress could not have chosen a better moment to arrange for their supreme leader Sonia Gandhi to pay obeisance to a powerful community leader.