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Valour in V1, parleys on V2

- Cong replaces weak candidate against Modi in Vadodara
Mistri (top), Modi

New Delhi, March 25: The Congress today substituted its candidate against Narendra Modi in Vadodara, bringing in Madhusudan Mistri, the lieutenant closest to Rahul Gandhi, in the hope of tying its principal opponent down and sending a spunky message to its ranks.

The choice also strengthened a perception that the Congress is hunting for a formidable challenger in the other V-seat — Varanasi, from where Modi is contesting. Sources said the Congress was testing the Varanasi waters for a consensus candidate who will be supported by other key players in Uttar Pradesh.

The Congress quietly opened the flank in Modi’s home state Gujarat by replacing a candidate who had been picked through Rahul’s primaries before the BJP leader chose the seat.

The little-known Narendra Ravat had won the primary from Vadodara, one of the 16 seats where the experiment was carried out, mainly because the Congress did not have a formidable claimant there. Even after Modi chose to contest the seat, the Congress maintained it would focus on Varanasi, not Vadodara.

However, the thinking changed once opinion gathered ground that Modi might be compelled to spend more time in Vadodara if a stronger challenger took him on.

In a statement, Ravat said: “Now that Narendra Modi has chosen to contest from here, I request the Congress leadership to allow me to withdraw from the contest and nominate an appropriate candidate.”

The entry of Mistri, a Congress general secretary, is bound to alter the electoral dynamics, although it will be difficult to blunt Modi’s advantage. Mistri, who first won a by-election to the Lok Sabha in 2001, was re-elected in 2004 from Sabarkantha in north Gujarat, bordering Rajasthan. Vadodara is in central Gujarat but Mistri has spent some time there as a student.

Mistri may not be able to match Modi in terms of political and financial clout but he can turn out to be a headache for the BJP because of his fierce criticism of communal politics.

Mistri is seen as Rahul’s commander-in-chief — which gives him a special status in the party. The Congress is hoping that his nomination will persuade Congress workers to venture out to give their best in this fight.

If Mistri succeeds in demanding greater attention from Modi in Vadodara, he will serve the Congress’s interests in Varanasi where a strong candidate is being searched for.

A Congress leader said after the announcement of the seventh list tonight: “This shows we are in the fight with all our might, no matter what the predictions are.”

For Varanasi, the Congress leadership is said to be in consultations with parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Although the Samajwadi Party as well as the BSP have already announced their candidates, they have expressed their readiness to withdraw from the race if the Congress came up with a credible name. These parties have decided not to support Arvind Kejriwal.

However, there is also a calculation that Kejriwal’s ability to attract youths and the middle class would only hurt the BJP’s prospects and there was no need to persuade him to pull out.

The parties are also trying to avert a division of votes. Efforts may be made to dissuade a jailed strongman, Mukhtar Ansari, from contesting as an Independent. Ansari is a big draw among the 3-lakh minority voters in Varanasi because of his Robin Hood image. If Ansari opts out of the race, Muslim voters are expected to become a big concern for the BJP and give the Congress a boost.

While Congress leaders are not willing to name any names, one leader claimed that “our candidate will satisfy everybody and generate enough enthusiasm and support to scare the BJP”.

There is a feeling in the party that if a consensus can be evolved, even a good local leader like Ajai Rai or Rajesh Mishra would be no pushover.

That, however, does not mean there is no possibility of a big name coming up as all options are being considered. A well-known public figure is reported to have agreed to contest as an Independent against Modi, provided all other parties supported him.

“The aggressive intent shown by the leadership by fielding veterans like Amarinder Singh, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ambika Soni indicates a new resolve to confront the BJP. This trend cannot be reversed when it comes to challenging Modi, we will definitely put up the best possible fight,” a Congress leader said.

Several leaders feel Sonia Gandhi should let Priyanka Gandhi Vadra take on Modi. Key strategists confirmed that the names of both Rahul and Priyanka were being suggested by leaders as well as workers.

Many apolitical “secular intellectuals”, too, have asked Congress leaders to field Rahul in Varanasi as one bold decision could turn the electoral tide even at this stage. But no indication has yet come from the family of its willingness to join the Varanasi battle.

The list released tonight included the name of former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan, who had to relinquish his office because of the Adarsh housing scandal. In place of information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari, Rahul aide Ravneet Singh Bittu was fielded from Ludhiana.


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