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Congress picks Ajai Rai for Varanasi constituency: Did prospect of losing to Narendra Modi spook Priyanka Gandhi?

Four days ago, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra made a public declaration that she would be "happy to contest from Banaras" and the onus was on his brother Rahul Gandhi to give her the opportunity to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his home constituency.

It was the second time that she had spoken about her possible candidature from Banaras. Prospects of a Modi versus Priyanka contest had spiced up media and public debates for around a month. The Congress, it seemed, was happy to keep that suspense going. It was good publicity for the party and in its wisdom, the news coverage would make the BJP tense and jittery.

But, Thursday afternoon brought in the anti-climax from the Congress, at around the time television channels were hooked on the preparations and extent of popular participation for Modi's late afternoon four-hour-long roadshow in the city. It was clear from the media coverage that the holy city of Varanasi was all geared up to give a rousing welcome to their MP and leave a lasting impression through those live pictures to the rest of the nation that Modi still enjoyed massive support in his constituency.

 Congress picks Ajai Rai for Varanasi constituency: Did prospect of losing to Narendra Modi spook Priyanka Gandhi?

File image of Priyanka Gandhi. PTI

The timing of the Congress announcement that local leader Ajai Rai, and not Priyanka, would be contesting from Varanasi gives rise to multiple questions — whether the Congress had come to the conclusion that Modi's electoral prospects couldn't be harmed in Varanasi; whether it realised that the party would be putting too much of its present and future at stake by fielding her as a candidate from the seat; whether a defeat at the hands of Modi would adversely impact her political career and by implication, the fortunes of the Congress; whether Rahul acted as a shield by denying her a ticket or was acting against his sister's ambitions, and so on.

It also raises a question whether Priyanka's public declarations that she would be "happy to contest from Banaras" was part of a carefully-crafted strategy through which she would be portrayed to be a brave and bold Gandhi scion who was keen to get into a direct fight with India's most powerful man on her debut, knowing full well that that after all that sound and fury, Rai would ultimately have to take the mantle. Even when Priyanka was displaying buoyancy about Varanasi, one question that consistently figured in informal chats among people was: Given the kind of aura the Congress had built around the Nehru-Gandhi family, could it afford to have Priyanka, the person who is hailed as the party's 'Brahmastra' (weapon of last resort of Lord Brahma) lose her very first election?

If she had fought and won against Modi, she would have created history and revived the Congress, but a defeat would have left a huge dent in Priyanka and the Nehru-Gandhi family's aura. The Congress' politics and organisational structures revolve around the first family, after all.

Cartoon by Manjul.

Cartoon by Manjul.

After taking it to such a high pitch, conveying a message that Priyanka's candidature would peg back Modi to only Varanasi, the Congress has given a complete walkover to the prime minister. The SP-BSP-RLD gathbandhan has so far not named any candidate from here.

Rai had earlier been in the BJP before moving to the Samajwadi Party in 2009 and then, the Congress ahead of the 2012 Assembly elections. It should be noted that in the last parliamentary election, Rai as a Congress candidate could get only 75,000 votes, around seven percent of the total votes polled. Given the mood in Varanasi, one can say that for all practical purposes, Rai has been made a sacrificial lamb by his party. In the last election, Modi secured 5.81 lakh votes (57 percent) and Arvind Kejriwal got over two lakh votes.

Now that Rahul has decided not to give Priyanka the opportunity she wanted, it would be worth knowing whether she is disappointed, anguished or secretly relieved.

BJP supporters have already begun saying that Priyanka fled from Varanasi after seeing the waves Modi was generating on Thursday.

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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 20:37:45 IST