The Congress is struggling to choose a challenger to Narendra Modi in Varanasi. A number of leaders and workers want the ticket given to a “strong local leader”, while others feel the candidate should be an “outsider with brand value”. The second category includes Digvijaya Singh, who hasn’t ruled himself out.
Many leaders have come out in support of the candidature of “strong local leader” Ajai Rai, MLA. This group feels it would be difficult to find an outsider who has a bigger brand value than Modi.
“Ajai Rai has worked at the grassroots level in Varanasi and is a known face among locals,” said Prajanath Sharma, the district Congress president. The local unit as well as the state unit are clearly advocating the four-time MLA who is being promoted as “Bhumihar Brahmin”, a community that boasts a large population in and around Varanasi. Rai has been a former MLA of the BJP in Varanasi, having won in 1996 and 2002 from Kolasala. He left the BJP before the 2009 Lok Sabha polls to contest the Varanasi seat as a Samajwadi Party candidate. He joined the Congress at the instance of Digvijaya Singh.
Among “outsiders” who are not locals but are strong contenders for the seat is Digvijaya himself. He had travelled across the state extensively before the 2009 elections and 2012 assembly elections as general secretary in-charge of the state. Digvajaya was recently made Rajya Sabha MP. Though he has not contested an election for a decade, many believe that if he does, then Ajai Rai will support him. Asked about his possibility of contesting against Modi, Digvijaya told The Indian Express, “I have no problem. Let the party decide.”
Other claimants include Rajesh Mishra, who is another local face, and former MP from Varanasi Anil Shastri, son of former PM Lal Bahadur Shastri. Asked about a celebrity face from Varanasi, Prajanath Sharma said, “When it comes to fielding a celebrity, it is upon the high command to decide. We will support whoever is declared the party candidate but will prefer a local candidate”.
Of the 69 seats that the Congress plans to contest in UP, it has declared only 65 candidates. Two are Mainpuri and Kannauj, which will likely be left for the SP; a decision is pending on Allahabad, besides Varanasi.