As campaigning for the May 12 Karnataka Assembly election entered the final week, Sonia Gandhi stepped into the picture on Tuesday, addressing her first election rally in two years.

The former Congress chief had not campaigned since taking ill during a roadshow in Varanasi in 2016. Though she recovered soon enough, Sonia Gandhi kept a low profile so as not to overshadow her son and successor Rahul Gandhi. The idea was to send out a message to the Congress cadre and the public at large that her son was the party boss now.

Now that Rahul Gandhi is firmly in the saddle, Sonia Gandhi has returned to the campaign trail. On Tuesday, she flew to Bijapur, a Lingayat stronghold, to shore up her party’s campaign. The Congress is locked in a tough fight with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has making a determined effort to oust the Siddaramaiah government.

Congress workers were keen that Sonia Gandhi join the campaign, reportedly to encash the public affection that they believe her family enjoys in Karnataka. The Gandhis do have personal connections to the state. Down and almost out after losing even her own seat in the post-Emergency election, Indira Gandhi started her journey back to power by winning a Lok Sabha bye-election from Chikmagalur in 1978. Two years later, she was back as the prime minister.

In 1999, Sonia Gandhi won her first election by defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Sushma Swaraj in Ballari. (She also won Amethi in Uttar Pradesh in that general election.)

Sonia Gandhi’s decision to campaign for the Karnataka election signals its importance for the Congress. The party has been reduced to governing just four states and a defeat here could prove crushing. It would also give a big boost to the rival BJP going into the state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh later this year and the general election early next year.

Conversely, a victory could energise the Congress’s rank and file, and they could go into the next election with the belief that the BJP led by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is not invincible. “It is all hands on deck,” explained a senior Congress leader who spoke anonymously. “Everyone has to pitch in as our party’s future and survival depends on this election.”

Bringing out the big guns

Rahul Gandhi has already toured much of Karnataka over the past month, and the party fielded former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday. Addressing a press conference in the poll-bound state, Singh took on Modi for “destroying the economy” and using language unbecoming of a prime minister.

Sonia Gandhi followed up with a scathing attack on the BJP, and Modi in particular. The prime minister speaks like an actor, she said, but speeches do not fill empty stomachs. She accused the Modi government of discriminating against Karnataka, saying it had received the least central compensation among drought-affected states. “Is this your idea of sabka saath, sabka vikas?” she asked.

Though the former Congress chief’s fiery speech was meant to provide a strong push to the party’s campaign in its closing stages, her participation also sends out a few messages. For one, it conveys that far from receding into the background, she will actively help her party, and indeed the larger opposition, to put up a spirited fight against the BJP in next year’s general election.

Congress leaders who have worked closely with Sonia Gandhi have been at pains pointing out that she has not retired after handing over the party’s reins to Rahul Gandhi. They have also rejected suggestions that she might not contest her Rae Bareli seat again next year. Moreover, as chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance, she will lead the effort to build a broad anti-BJP alliance of “like-minded” parties just as she had done prior to the 2004 general election.

Although Rahul Gandhi has made tentative moves in this direction – he called on Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav this month and met the Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar several times – the feeling within the Opposition is that regional satraps would respond better to Sonia Gandhi. By joining the Karnataka campaign, she has indicated to both partymen and potential allies that she is ready to do what needs done. As a senior Congress functionary put it, “She wants to tell party workers that she is not absent from the scene.”