Congress president Rahul Gandhi today trekked 10 kilometres up a steep stairway to the Lord Venkateswara temple at Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh, so he could offer prayers to the presiding deity. He was accompanied by his teenage nephew Raihan, besides senior party leaders Oommen Chandy, T Subbarami Reddy and JD Seelam on his two-hour-long hike to the top.
Mr Gandhi was received by temple officials at its main entrance, news agency PTI quoted a source as saying. It reportedly took the Congress president about two hours to reach the top. He later made a brief halt at the heavily guarded Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam guest house situated atop the hill before proceeding to the temple, the source added.
The Congress president was offered a sacred silk cloth, prasadam and a memento after the prayers were done, the source said, adding that he spent about 20 minutes at the temple. Tight security arrangements were put in place along the route to the top in view of his visit.
Upon wrapping up the temple visit, Mr Gandhi headed downhill to address a rally at the Sri Venkateswara University Stadium in Tirupati. At the event, he reiterated that the Congress would ensure Special Category Status for the bifurcated Andhra Pradesh if the party is elected to power in 2019. State party leaders are on a 13-day padyatra (march) across Andhra Pradesh, making a similar promise to the people.
The Congress had entered into an alliance with the Telugu Desam Party before the Telangana elections, but it failed to make any impact on the people. Oommen Chandy, the Congress in-charge for Andhra Pradesh, later announced that his party will fight the Lok Sabha elections alone in the southern state.
All India Congress Committee secretary CD Meyyappan said this was the first time Mr Gandhi visited the holy hills at Tirupati ever since he became the party president.
The ruling BJP regularly criticises Mr Gandhi's temple visits, terming them as "empty attempts at religious appeasement" and "fancy dress Hindutva". "This temple hopping of Rahul Gandhi, the temporary janeu (sacred thread) he adorns, the fancy dress Hindutva that he has taken to, are nothing but eyewash," party spokesperson Sambit Patra had said in the run-up to the Madhya Pradesh assembly election.
A resurgent Congress hopes to give the Narendra Modi-led BJP a tough fight in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Fitch Solutions, an international research agency, has even said that the Congress stands a "fair chance" at forming the government with support from regional allies this time.
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