Lucknow, Sep 14 Prayers and 'darshan' at four Hindu temples, sandalpaste and vermillion smeared on his forehead and photo ops with Hindu religious leaders. In the first week of his 'Kisan Yatra' aimed at regaining power in Uttar Pradesh, is Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi resorting to soft Hindutva?
If yes, will it work in favour of the Congress or backfire -- as it did in the time of his late father, Rajiv Gandhi?
While party mandarins refuse to be drawn into a debate, Congress leaders in the state informally admit there has been a change in the way the Gandhi scion is being presented.
Often riled for being a party which appeases the minorities, the Congress appears to be making a conscious effort to win back the Hindus as it braces to give its best shot in assembly elections slated for early 2017.
Turned into rubble with only 28 legislators in a house of 403, a sharp contrast to its glorious past when it ruled India's most populous state, Gandhi's 2,500-km Yatra, covering 223 assembly segments, was also aimed at "soothing frayed nerves", a senior party leader said.
This, in effect, means the party is engaged in a major outreach to Hindus.
"The visit to Hanumangarhi in Ayodhya and a closed-door meeting with its priest Mahant Gyandas was choreographed well in advance not only for grabbing eyeballs but also to dent the stranglehold of the BJP on the community of holy men," a party leader told IANS.
But Congress leaders are quick to add that the party is wedded to secular values and respects all communities and religions.
Gandhi also visited Kichaucha Mazaar in Ambedkarnagar. But it was the first visit to Ayodhya in 26 long years by any member of the Gandhi family to the temple town.
Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had visited Ayodhya in 1990, though he could not go to Hanumangarhi.
One analyst said that from announcing an ageing Sheila Dixit as its presumptive Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh, to tap the Brahmin vote bank, to the carefully orchestrated visits to temples in Gorakhpur, Faizabad, Ambedkarnagar and Ayodhya, the grand old party finally seems to be coming out of the closet to embrace the majority community.
UP's powerful cabinet minister Mohammad Azam Khan, however, trashes the outreach of Rahul Gandhi and says he was engaged in "fraudulent activities". "Visiting mazaars and temples is meant to fool people. Rahul should realise that people are wise and will not be swayed by his antics," Khan said.
Mahant Suresh Das of Ayodhya too feels that Gandhi's actions are politically motivated. "If the Congress leader was serious, he should have also visited Ram Lalla, who sits just a kilometre from Hanumangarhi," he said, referring to the makeshift Ram temple built on the ruins of the Babri Masjid.
He said the Congress will have to come clean on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri mosque issue.
The Congress last tasted power in Uttar Pradesh in 1985 and is now desperate to end its exile. Strategist Prashant Kishore has been tasked with working out the religious matrix.
The Dalits, Brahmins, Thakurs and Muslims along with OBCs were once the core base of the Congress. Large chunks of them have drifted away to the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seriously hitting the Congress.
Gandhi has clearly taken the first steps to rebuild the lost rainbow coalition. Will he succeed? It is a million dollar question.