What's behind the Priyanka decision in Varanasi

Congress renominated Ajay Rai for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat

By Sanjay K. Jha in New Delhi
  • Published 26.04.19, 7:40 AM
  • Updated 26.04.19, 7:40 AM
  • 3 mins read
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Priyanka Gandhi Vadra waves at supporters at a roadshow in support of Congress candidate Shiv Sharan Kushwaha in Jhansi on Thursday. (PTI)

The Congress on Thursday renominated Ajay Rai for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat, ending speculation that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra could take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the holy city.

In 2014, former local MLA Rai had polled 75,614 votes against Modi’s 5.81 lakh and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal’s 2 lakh.

Rai’s renomination was largely viewed as a Congress surrender. The leadership drew widespread criticism for deliberately fuelling the speculation about fielding Priyanka only to back out in the end.

When Congress workers in Rae Bareli asked her to contest the Lok Sabha election, Priyanka had smiled and said: “Why not Varanasi?”

While this was viewed as her willingness to take Modi head-on, Priyanka elaborated later, saying she was ready for the fight if party president Rahul Gandhi asked her. The media lapped up the idea and began portraying it as a possible fascinating battle.

The Congress wasn’t unhappy with the coverage the subject ensured for the party in both electronic and print media. The Congress could also sense some unease in BJP circles as regular feedback from Varanasi suggested a churn among the local population.

Rahul chose not to smother the speculation by saying in an interview: “Suspense is not a bad thing.” He repeated this in another interview: “The decision has been taken but let the suspense continue.”

Congress spokespersons never said Priyanka could contest. Communications chief Randeep Surjewala said on several occasions: “You will be informed when a decision is taken.”

The party’s reluctance to scotch such conjecture emanated from two reasons: One, some leaders got genuinely fascinated by the idea of a Priyanka-vs-Modi contest and forced a debate within the party; two, the discourse generated people’s interest and kept party workers on their toes.

Some random surveys were also conducted discreetly, but the idea didn’t find favour with the top leadership as the SP-BSP did not want to field a joint candidate along with the Congress.

Mayawati was firm and she forced the SP to announce an alliance candidate for Varanasi to rule out the possibility of a joint fight along with the Congress.

There was a perception in the SP-BSP camp that if Priyanka entered the fray against Modi, it would lift the Congress and cause substantial erosion in the Uttar Pradesh combine’s support base.

The Congress also understood there was no point in damaging the SP-BSP tie-up as central and eastern Uttar Pradesh have a strong presence of Muslims and Dalits and any confusion among the voters might help the BJP.

Also, the Congress suspected that stopping Modi would be difficult as it didn’t have the organisational machinery to match the BJP’s vast networks.

The dominant view was that channelling the Congress’s energies on winnable seats in and outside Uttar Pradesh was a wiser option than wasting it on a risky proposition.

There are at least 15 constituencies in Uttar Pradesh where Congress candidates are expected to put up a good fight. In about 50-60 constituencies, the Congress leadership is more interested in helping the SP-BSP candidates to ensure the BJP’s loss.

Even on Thursday, the Congress fielded Madhusudan Tiwari, a popular lawyer, from chief minister Adityanath’s fief, Gorakhpur. Tiwari’s choice was driven by a plan to cut into Brahmin votes as the BJP’s candidate, actor Ravi Kishan (Shukla), is from the same caste.

Another factor that weighed on Rahul’s mind was the future politics in Uttar Pradesh.

If Priyanka contested and lost in Varanasi, she would not have been the same political force for the Assembly elections in the state as she is today with the general perception being she has high potential.

Sources said the initial plan when Priyanka was launched in Uttar Pradesh didn’t include an electoral debut at this stage. She was supposed to look after Amethi and Rae Bareli in addition to the rest of eastern Uttar Pradesh.

But the lure of a Modi-Priyanka contest endures. Many Congress leaders privately hoped that Rai would be asked to withdraw and Priyanka would file her nomination papers on the last day on April 29.

If that is the secret plan, the party will spare no pains in keeping it under the wraps.