Congress legislator Ajai Rai has emerged the frontrunner to take on Narendra Modi in Varanasi, although the party is still exploring the option of fielding a Brahmin candidate. While there are many self-proclaimed contenders for the party ticket — Digvijaya Singh, Anand Sharma, Anil Shastri, Rajesh Mishra —their names have not even come up for consideration as the party leadership wants to pit a “formidable” candidate against Modi, according to sources.
Former BJP leader Rai, who belongs to the Bhumihar community, had switched over to the Samajwadi Party in 2009 to contest against Murli Manohar Joshi; he finished third behind Joshi and the BSP’s Mukhtar Ansari. Rai, an arch rival of eastern UP strongman Ansari, is said to have a considerable following among Brahmins and Bhumihars.
“While Ajai Rai is of course there, we are also looking at the option of a Brahmin candidate. As of now, Rai stands a strong chance,” said a senior Congress functionary. The party’s inclination to field a Brahmin candidate is driven by its assessment that a section of the community could have been alienated by the BJP due to the denial of the ticket to Joshi.
In a constituency with large populations of Brahmin, Muslim, Vaishya and Patel voters, the Congress has its eye set on the first two groups. Its attempt to rope in the Apna Dal to target the Patel vote-bank suffered a blow this week when negotiations failed and the regional party went in for an alliance with the BJP. Apna Dal leader Anupriya Patel is learnt to have spent hours with Congress general secretary Madhusudan Mistry and Jitendra Singh separately to reach a seat-sharing agreement but, said Congress sources, her demand for Varanasi turned out to be a “deal-breaker”.
“We were ready to part with five seats, but she (Anupriya) wanted Varanasi. How could the Congress not field a candidate against the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate? Apna Dal leaders were talking about taking on reactionary forces together and a few hours later they decided to go with the BJP!” said the Congress functionary.
Anupriya conceded to The Indian Express that she had wanted to contest from Varanasi but added that the deal broke because of differences over several other seats.
At Tri Nagar, Smriti Irani centered her speech around Modi, with over 10 references in 11-minute extempore.