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Cong hopes: Priyanka, Sachin… Modi blunder

New Delhi, March 18: The Congress today threatened to field a “formidable” candidate against Narendra Modi but party seniors privately conceded that the BJP leader’s indisputable popularity in Uttar Pradesh could be countered only if he chose to contest from a seat in Gujarat as well.

“Modi’s claim on Varanasi would be significantly weakened if he contests from two constituencies, particularly if the other one is from Gujarat,” a key Congress strategist told The Telegraph.

“Varanasi’s people won’t allow themselves to be fooled by a person whose original loyalty is to Gujarat. They will respond differently if there is a genuine fear that Modi would relinquish this seat after winning both.”

This almost sounded like a confession that the Congress didn’t have a candidate to counter Modi and could only hope to exploit a tactical blunder to create confusion in voters’ minds.

Congress leaders appear split between two opinions: one, only someone like Priyanka Gandhi Vadra or Sachin Tendulkar can defeat Modi; and two, Arvind Kejriwal can become a genuine threat to Modi in Varanasi if all the secular parties back his candidature.

The Congress had initially cleared the Varanasi ticket for local strongman Ajai Rai, a defector from the Samajwadi Party who had contested the Assembly elections, but is now reconsidering. Its third list of 58 candidates, announced tonight, didn’t include Varanasi.

Officially, the party talked tough. “BJP president Rajnath Singh ran away from Ghaziabad when we announced Raj Babbar as our candidate. Don’t be surprised if the same happens in Varanasi,” spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said.

“We will field a formidable candidate. Modi has got the jitters even before the customary dip in the Ganga and has returned to look for a safer shelter in Gujarat,” he alleged.

Asked about possible Congress support for Kejriwal in Varanasi, Surjewala said: “We are fighting the communal forces and we appeal to every voter of Varanasi and all the parties to support us. The candidate against Modi will fight under the Congress flag.”

He added: “We supported Kejriwal in Delhi (as chief minister) but he failed. Kejriwal has to cover a lot of ground and has to mature in politics. We don’t have personal agendas; we fight on the basis of a broad ideological framework.”

Kalmadi out

The Congress’s third list has ended speculation about Suresh Kalmadi, tainted by the Commonwealth Games scam, getting re-nominated from Pune. The ticket has gone to Vishwajeet Kadam, son of Congress minister Patangrao Kadam.

The fate of former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan, accused of involvement in the Adarsh housing scandal, hangs in the balance: the party has delayed the announcement for the Nanded seat for which he was lobbying.

Chavan wants the seat to go to wife Ameeta if he has to sit out. Kalmadi too had lobbied for his wife but failed.

The man who replaces him in Pune is president of the Maharashtra Youth Congress, a computer engineer, an MBA and the holder of a Harvard degree.

Vishwajeet is also a nominated member of the All Indian Council for Technical Education and runs 180-odd educational institutions under the ambit of Bharti Vidyapeeth.

Former cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin, who was looking for a safe seat, has been fielded from the Rajasthan seat of Sawai Madhopur where the Muslim vote is crucial.

Erstwhile Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi too has finally been given a ticket, from Mahasamund.

In Darjeeling, the party has opted for Sujoy Ghatak, who is from the plains. It has retained five MPs in Delhi while prolonging the wait for Mahabal Mishra and Sajjan Kumar’s brother Ramesh Kumar.

The Congress has taken a bold step by fielding the late Arjun Singh’s son Ajay from Satna in Madhya Pradesh, while Sachin Pilot has been re-nominated from Ajmer.

Rahul Gandhi aide and general secretary C.P. Joshi has been given a seat of his choice, Jaipur Rural. Seva Dal chief Mahesh Joshi has been fielded from Jaipur city.

Former Guwahati MP Kirip Chaliha will contest from Mangaldoi. Union ministers Srikant Jena and Chandresh Kumari have been re-nominated from Balasore and Jodhpur. In this list too, about a third of the candidates are young.