Kolkata: Congress president Rahul Gandhi is expected to visit West Bengal several times ahead of next year’s general elections, and he could kick off his campaign with a visit during the Durga Puja later this month, according to key party functionaries in Kolkata.

“Gandhi has given his initial nod to the proposal," said Pradip Bhattacharya, one of the four working presidents of the Congress in West Bengal. He will reach out to people through the Durga Puja. Gandhi was likely to visit puja pandals, Bhattacharya added.

However, it is not immediately clear whether Gandhi will meet party workers, according to Bhattacharya.

In other states such as Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Gandhi has of late visited many Hindu shrines—visits sometimes described by detractors as temple-run in poll-bound states.

Gandhi was even mocked for his recently concluded Mansarovar pilgrimage, with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) spokesperson Sambit Patra accusing Gandhi of owing allegiance to the Chinese government.

Sayantan Basu, general secretary of the state BJP, said Gandhi was afraid of the inroads made by his party in Bengal and hence this “religious drama". “Where was his Hinduism all this while?" Basu asked.

The local leadership of the Congress in West Bengal is of the view that Gandhi needs to take on the “religious card being played by the BJP", according to a party functionary who did not want be identified. To connect with the local people in West Bengal, there could not be a better opportunity than Durga Puja, this person said.

Though Congress workers are upbeat about Gandhi’s visit during the festivities, Omprakash Mishra, general secretary of the state unit of the party, said final confirmation was awaited. If things go as planned, Gandhi will arrive in Kolkata in the third week of October.

The BJP was trying to polarise the electorate, and to counter that, Gandhi’s visit during Durga Puja would help lift his party’s image in West Bengal, said Biswanath Chakraborty, professor of political science at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University and an independent election analyst.

“And this isn’t the first time: he has walked this path before in Gujarat and Karnataka," he added.

There is speculation within the Congress that the party will enter into a pre-poll alliance with the Trinamool Congress for the 2019 general elections. The previous state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who was in favour of allying with the Left parties, was last month replaced by veteran leader Somen Mitra, who was once with the Trinamool Congress and wants the two parties to contest the general elections together.

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