AYODHYA: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi today offered prayers at the Hanuman Garhi Temple here, becoming the first member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to visit Ayodhya since the demolition of the disputed structure in 1992.
Before embarking on the fourth day of his mahayatra in Uttar Pradesh, where elections are due early next year, the 46-year-old Congress Vice President met Mahant Gyan Das, who is known for his anti-Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) stance, before having 'darshan' at the temple. No member of the Congress' first family has visited Ayodhya since the demolition of the Babri Masjid 24 years ago, in December 1992.
As a convoy of cars, buses and open trucks rolled into the temple town, people rushed out of their houses to have a glimpse of the Congress leader. Much significance is being attached in political circles to Rahul's visit to Hanuman Garhi, which is about a kilometre away from the Ram Temple at the disputed Ramjanmbhoomi-Babri Masjid site. Rahul also stayed away from the site of 'shilanyas', the foundation stone that had been laid there in 1989 for the construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
Old timers recall that 26 years ago, Rahul's father and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had planned to visit the Hanuman Garhi Temple on a trip to Ayodhya during his 'Sadbhavna Yatra' in 1990, but he could not make it because of paucity of time. Rajiv was assassinated the next year, on May 21, 1991 when Rahul was 20 years old.
Political observers see a soft Hindutva agenda in the Ayodhya visit at a time when Congress appears to follow a Brahmin-centric campaign in Uttar Pradesh prescribed by election strategist Prashant Kishor, who is designing every move of the Congress scion. Congress president Sonia Gandhi's visit to Varanasi last month had to be cut short before she could offer prayers at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple as she fell ill. Sonia has not visited Ayodhya since 1992, though she has visited its twin town of Faizabad for election campaigns.
After his brief visit to Hanuman Garhi Temple, Rahul returned to the Circuit House before staring his road show to culminate with a visit the Kichaucha Sharif Dargah, a Muslim shrine in adjoining Ambedkar Nagar, apparently to play a balancing act. Kishor is of the view that Congress must win its original constituencies of Muslims, Brahmins and a section of the non-Dalit Other Backward Castes (OBCs) as it makes a serious attempt at an impact in UP, which it had last won 27 years ago.