Just before Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Varanasi for his road show, the Congress put a stop to speculation about AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra contesting from the seat by fielding Ajai Rai, a local leader who is a five-time MLA and contested against Modi in 2014.
Rai (49), a Bhumihar, finished third in the 2014 polls after Modi and AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal. He had then secured around 75,000 votes.
The Congress’s decision came after much speculation about Priyanka contesting from Varanasi. The speculation was fuelled by the Gandhis themselves. While Priyanka had twice publicly expressed readiness to contest against the PM, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi did not rule out the possibility, saying that suspense is not always a bad thing.
Opinion in the Congress was divided on the move. While some top leaders in Delhi said the plan was never on the table, many leaders argued that Rahul was against fielding Priyanka as it would have tied her down in Varanasi, which in any case is impossible to win. The decision also left many disappointed as they argued that the party should have shown the stomach to fight.
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Some said the party machinery and Priyanka should not expend all its resources in Varanasi and miss out on campaigning in other seats and states. The Delhi unit of the Congress, for instance, wants Priyanka to do a road show in the national capital. Many in the Congress believe the Gandhis let the speculation going as it kept the party in the narrative at least in Uttar Pradesh. What was unsaid, of course, was the assessment that a heavy loss would hurt Priyanka’s image and fledgling political career.
Rai began his career with the BJP. He was elected thrice from Varanasi as BJP MLA. He left the party in 2009, contested the Lok Sabha election on an SP ticket, and finished third. The seat was won by Murli Manohar Joshi and BSP’s Mukhtar Ansari was second. In 2012, he joined the Congress on the intervention of then AICC general secretary Digvijaya Singh.
Rai is known to have a say among Bhumihars as well as Brahmins in Varanasi. Sources said the Congress was banking on his local connect and influence to fight Modi. —With inputs from New Delhi