Lucknow: The suspense around the Congress candidate from Varanasi fizzled with the party renominating Ajai Rai against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi, a superstar campaigner for the Bharatiya Janata Party, won the seat in 2014 by nabbing 5,81,022 votes. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal came in second with 2,09,238 votes. Rai, with 75,614 votes, was a distant third.
Until the Congress announced its candidate for Varanasi, speculation was rife that the party may field its general secretary for east Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, from the prestigious constituency. The Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP) alliance fielded Shalini Yadav, daughter-in-law of former Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson Shyam Lal Yadav who recently switched sides from Congress to Samajwadi Party.
With no strong Opposition candidate, Varanasi seems like a walkover for Modi, who received a fight from Kejriwal in 2014. That fight, and the Delhi chief minister’s aspirations for rapid progress at the national stage in 2014 have, however, limited his party’s part in these general elections.
Claiming that the party’s focus this election is on Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, AAP Uttar Pradesh spokesperson Vaibhav Maheswari said, “We didn't get (an) appropriate candidate for Varanasi... We didn't want to just cut the anti-Modi vote and give him benefits.”
AAP has fielded candidates in six seats in Uttar Pradesh. The announcement of Rai’s candidature came from the Congress camp at a time when the prime minister was on a roadshow in Varanasi Thursday. He is to file his nomination in the constituency on Friday.
Rumours around Priyanka’s candidature from Varanasi, coupled with her response that the party’s word would be supreme in this regard, gave the story plausibility. Some local editions of newspapers went a step ahead and declared that ‘Priyanka is coming to Varanasi to give a tough fight to Modi.’
Rai, a senior Congressman from the Bhumihar community, has been a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) five times, and has a strong hold on the Brahmin and the Bhumihar communities. He was a BJP MLA from Koalsala Assembly constituency between 1996 and 2007. Ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Rai, when denied a ticket from Varanasi, moved to the Samajwadi Party. In a closely-fought contest, Rai ended third runner-up, behind BSP candidate Mukhtar Ansari, who allegedly ordered the killing of Rai’s elder brother Awadhesh.
Political commentator Vinod Kapoor believes Priyanka is “a trump card of the Congress,” which the party will not use so soon: “They have brought her into politics at a time when regional parties of Uttar Pradesh, like SP and the BSP, are not giving importance to the Congress. By giving her the responsibility of Uttar Pradesh east, a crucial region, the Congress has definitely activated its cadre.”
Kapoor said fielding Priyanka from Varanasi, a tough seat, would have been the wrong decision. He added that the party would not wish to waste one of its promising candidates in a contest where chances of victory are bleak.
RR Jha, a senior professor of Political Science at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), said the prime minister has an open field in Varanasi in the absence of any strong opponent. “It is being said that Rai has a firm grip on his people, but the ground reality is that the Bhumihar vote is split between Modi and Rai. Watching the number of votes Rai got in 2014 elections, it seems that even Bhumihars do not vote for him.”
Jha said the SP-BSP candidate Shalini will have little impact on this contest, citing her unsuccessful run in the 2017 mayoral polls. He said Opposition parties this time do not seem interested in a direct contest with Modi in Varanasi.
R P Dubey, a political commentator, opined that Rai’s Banarasi connection and local leadership may get him some votes, but the contest remains one-sided: in favour of the prime minister.
Voting in Varanasi is scheduled on 19 May in the seventh and final phase of elections.
The author is Lucknow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com
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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2019 19:42:40 IST