Ajay Rai
Ajay Rai Image Credit: Gulf News

Dubai: India’s Congress party on Thursday ended weeks of suspense over Priyanka Gandhi’s name as a candidate against Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the Hindu holy city of Varanasi. It announced Ajay Rai, a former legislator who came third in 2014 elections when Modi won by a huge margin.

So, has the opposition given up on Varanasi by fielding low-profile candidates? The Samajwadi Party too has fielded a low-profile candidate, Shalini Yadav, who fought and lost Varanasi’s municipal elections.

The election of Varanasi parliamentary seat is of huge significance not just because it is Modi’s seat but also because it is considered the holiest city in Hinduism. Located on the western bank of Ganges, Hindus consider this city of around 1.6 million people as their final resting place, anyone dying here attains Moksha, an escape from the eternal cycle of life and death.

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In 2014, Varanasi became the launch-pad for Aaam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal who was projected as a giant killer, someone who had the potential of defeating Modi. Kejriwal galvanised his newly formed party, drawing young volunteers from New Delhi and other parts of India to take on Modi. But he ended up second, getting a little over 200,000 votes against Modi’s 5,80,000. Rai came a poor third with just 75,000 votes.

Who is Ajay Rai?

Going by Rai’s track record, Thursday’s announcement came as a disappointment for Modi’s opponents who were expecting a high profile candidate and a section of Congress leaders were pushing for Priyanka’s name. Rai is a known political figure in Varanasi but he is not expected to pose a credible challenge.

I met Rai in May 2014 at his residence at Chaitganj. A convoy of black Ford SUVs were parked outside his high-walled residence house, inside I was led to a large living room where he received me for an interview. “Being a local, I have an edge, people are angry with the BJP for fielding candidates from outside Varanasi – earlier Murli Manohar Joshi and now Modi,” he had said.

“Modi is popular only in affluent sections and has no following at the ground level. BJP has brought in cadre from Gujarat and Maharashtra, angering their local supporters,” he had added, emphasising that he would put up a good fight.

The election results proved Rai wrong, he came a poor third.

A five time legislator, Rai had previously been a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) before joining the Congress. Earlier, Rai has won assembly elections thrice on BJP ticket.

Is Rai’s name final?

In the backdrop of his performance in 2014, Thursday’s announcement came as a surprise. The Congress announcement came hours before Modi is expected to lead a roadshow in Varanasi on Thursday and a day before he files his nomination on Friday. “I think this part of a strategy to catch Modi off guard, Rai’s name is not final,” said a source based in Varanasi. After the nomination, a new announcement is expected, he added. In recent weeks, the Congress has changed candidates on several seats in Uttar Pradesh and a replacement cannot be ruled out.