The wait that appeared to have deflated the enthusiasm of many Congress workers, a few of whom left the party for the BJP, finally ended on Tuesday when the party announced Ajai Rai as its candidate from Varanasi.
Currently the party MLA from Pindra, Rai will take on the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal, besides Kailash Chaurasia and Vijay Prakash Jaiswal of the SP and BSP, respectively.
The announcement comes a day after the local unit of the party consulted the top office-bearers of the All India Congress Committee and decided to launch its campaign, irrespective of whether or not the nominee is announced.
Confirming Rai’s candidature from Varanasi, District Congress president Praja Nath Sharma said, “It is official. He will be our candidate. We were assured by the AICC that the candidate would be a local person. Our preparations for the campaign are already in place; we will start from April 9.”
Earlier, the mood in the Congress camp appeared to be despondent and it got reflected in a couple of local leaders from the party joining the BJP during the visit of the latter’s UP incharge Amit Shah last week.
Following the announcement, Rai was welcomed by party workers at Town Hall from where they were supposed to launch a campaign with the slogan ‘Jaago aur Jagao, Varanasi Bachao (wake yourself and others, save Varanasi)’.
The Congress unit had been pitching for a local candidate to fight the battle on the lines of ‘local’ versus ‘outsiders’.
Apart from Rai, former MP Rajesh Mishra (2004-09) from Varanasi was also a contender for the ticket. While Mishra was camping in Delhi for the past several days, Rai was ensuring his continuous visibility in Varanasi, positioning himself as a ‘son-of-the-soil’. A key BJP man at one stage, Rai had left the party before the 2009 Lok Sabha election and finished third on an SP ticket, behind the BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi, who has since been shifted to Varanasi from Allahabad, and BSP candidate Mukhtar Ansari.
He had polled around 1.25 lakh votes, against Ansari’s 1.84 lakh and Joshi’s a little over two lakh votes. Rai was MLA at least thrice from the erstwhile Kolasla Assembly constituency. Following delimitation, he won in 2012 from Pindra Assembly constituency on a Congress ticket. In 1996, as a BJP candidate he had beaten nine-time CPI MLA Udal.
Party sources said that since his commendable performance, Rai has been preparing himself for the Lok Sabha elections and had been a continuous presence in the district since the 2009 polls.
Rai is also said to have considerable command among the sizeable Brahmin and Bhumihar voters. Sources said that Rai may use this to make inroads into the BJP votes, as the latter had not given much preference to these two communities.