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5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Houston, Modi has a problem

New Delhi, April 8: The Congress today fielded local strongman Ajay Rai against Narendra Modi in Varanasi, a choice seen by the ranks as a damp squib but defended as a strong “local” candidate by insiders.

The Congress’s delay in announcing the name had prompted suggestions that the party was taking its time to handpick a formidable candidate against Modi. So high were the expectations among the leaders that some had even started dropping the names of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Rahul Gandhi as potential candidates.

When Rai’s name was announced by Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala at a regular media conference, questions were asked whether a deal had been struck with the BJP for fielding a weak candidate. But Surjewala forcefully contended that Rai was indeed a formidable candidate and would emerge victorious in the clash of two ideologies.

Rai does not exactly fit the mould of the ideal candidate Rahul had been championing. Originally a BJP sympathiser who cut his teeth in its student wing ABVP, the five-time MLA had joined the Samajwadi Party in 2009 when Murli Manohar Joshi came to Varanasi to fight the election.

Rai finished third as the Samajwadi candidate, behind Joshi and Mukhtar Ansari, a don who commands considerable support. Rai joined the Congress and won the Pindra Assembly seat of Varanasi district in 2012.

He has the popularity and muscle power to make an impact on the election but does not have the punching power of Modi whose presence has already created waves in the holy city where the RSS has strong roots.

The 44-year-old Rai studied in Kashi Vidyapeeth and is well-known as a social and political worker in Varanasi. But he also faces several cases under the Gangster Act and other IPC provisions.

Rai can mount a respectable fight only if the Congress manages to strike a deal with the Samajwadi Party and the BSP to make him the common candidate of the Opposition. The Congress has appealed to all parties to support its candidate.

One Congress leader braved the current mood and insisted: “He will prove to be better than Arvind Kejriwal (the AAP candidate who has said he will contest against Modi) and can even win as a joint candidate.”

The irony of the Congress, which has made anti-communalism one of its key planks, relying on a person who was jailed for alleged involvement in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation in 1992-93 was not lost on many.

But Surjewala said: “We believe Rai will win the battle between two sets of values and cultures, the battle between divisive and inclusive forces.”

The Congress intends to make this a local-versus-outsider fight because Modi, as well as Kejriwal, are not expected to settle down in Varanasi.

The Congress spokesperson laid stress on Rai’s local credentials, saying “he is devoted to Varanasi, knows the area and the people’s concerns. He is a grassroots leader who will work for the aspirations of the people of Varanasi.”

Asked why the Congress chose Rai for the high-profile contest, a leader said: “It was a considered decision to field a local candidate. We never said Rahul or Priyanka would go there. Our assessment is that Rai would prove better than any senior leader from outside Varanasi.”

The fight can acquire an edge if the Congress succeeds in persuading Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati to withdraw their candidates. Efforts are also on to persuade Ansari, the runner-up last time, not to contest as an Independent but Rai’s relations with him are strained.

The Congress’s calculation is that caste equations can turn favourable for Rai if Muslim votes are not divided. Varanasi has around 3.75 lakh Muslim voters while Brahmins and Bhumihars account for more than 5 lakh votes. Although there are over 3 lakh OBC voters, largely Kurmis and Chaurasias, an upper-caste consolidation, along with Muslim support, can become a bother for Modi. But it would be wrong to presume that Brahmins would vote for the Congress en bloc as the RSS has a huge network in the area and Modi also has his appeal among the upper castes.

Rai is expected to stand no chance in the event of a multi-cornered contest that will splinter the anti-Modi votes.