The Congress high command on Thursday threw its weight behind its local leadership in Varanasi, which had taken a lead in the protests by seers against a police crackdown on them last month during a procession to immerse Ganesha idols in the Ganga.
As the central leadership sent out a clear message to take the agitation forward, AICC general secretary Madhusudan Mistry and state Congress chief Nirmal Khatri met party MLA Ajai Rai in the Fatehgarh jail. The meeting, sources claimed, happened following instructions from party president Sonia Gandhi. Rai, who took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi during the Lok Sabha polls, was arrested in connection with violence during a protest march on Monday.
Sources in the party also revealed that former MP Rajesh Mishra and Mirzapur MLA Lalitesh Pati Tripathi had been told to lead the agitation in Varanasi in Rai’s absence.
Sonia reportedly spoke to senior party leader and Lalitesh’s father, Rajesh Pati Tripathi, on Wednesday in this connection.
On Thursday, Lalitesh and Mishra took out a march in Varanasi to protest against Rai’s arrest and the police crackdown on the seers. According to sources, both leaders have been told to organise one protest march daily.
Meantime, Mistry said the police were discriminating against Rai. He added that he had constituted a fact-finding team that would visit Varanasi and submit its report by October 15.
The Congress party’s participation in the protests by Hindu seers is being seen as a well thought out attempt to alter the perception that it was anti-Hindu.
Sources claimed that the strategy was to make subtle attempts to retrieve lost ground among the majority Hindu community, without compromising the party’s secular image. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has been steering the course correction himself with his recent visit to temples. Recently, senior leader Digvijaya Singh had declared the party’s support for a law to impose nationwide ban on cow slaughter. However, the party had simultaneously announced its plan to hold a daylong fast in Dadri for communal harmony. Arguing in favour of a course correction, a senior Congress leader said the party, by keeping a distance from seers, had “pushed all of them over to the BJP side”.
Meanwhile, a section of the Congress leadership also believes the party must capitalise on the “unrest” in the larger Sangh clan.
“What we are seeing in Varanasi or in Dadri is internal politics of the VHP and outfits like the Bajrang Dal. It is clear they are trying to make Modi uncomfortable. We should try to create a space for ourselves wherever possible. We have nothing to lose in UP,” a senior UPCC leader said.
The bid to meet Rai in jail is also significant as a section of the Congress leaders were unhappy with the state unit for remaining indifferent to political developments. At a Congress strategy meet earlier this week, former Union minister Jitin Prasada had attacked the state unit for not strongly taking up the Muzaffarnagar probe report, which reportedly blamed leaders of both the SP and the BJP.