The Congress party on Thursday, 25 April, announced its decision to field local strongman Ajay Rai against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls in Varanasi.
This came after weeks of speculation about a potential heavyweight battle between PM Modi and Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi.
Rai, a five-time MLA from Uttar Pradesh, had contested in Varanasi against PM Modi and AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal in 2014 as well. Back then, he was routed by the prime minister, who had secured 5,81,022 votes, as opposed to Rai’s 75,614 votes.
Given that Varanasi has been a bastion of the prime minister, why has Congress decided to stick with Rai? The answer may lie in taking a closer look at him.
Rai, a five-time MLA from Uttar Pradesh, began his political career as a member of Bharatiya Janata Party's student wing.
He had won Assembly elections from Kolasla three times in a row (1996-2007) on a BJP ticket.
Following this, he left the BJP after he was denied a Lok Sabha ticket in favour of Murli Manohar Joshi. He then joined the Samajwadi Party and lost the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
Subsequently, he left the SP and decided to contest independently. He then won the 2009 Assembly by-election from Kolasla constituency and decided to join Congress.
In 2012, he contested and won Assembly elections from Varanasi’s Pindra constituency.
Rai was born and raised in Varanasi. His parents, Surendra Rai and Parvati Devi Rai, were originally from the Ghazipur district.
While Rai wields significant political might in eastern Uttar Pradesh, his clout, as this DNA editorial points out, extends beyond politics.
According to the report, Rai is much feared in eastern UP and is known more as a “mafia don and gangster than a political leader”.
“In police dossiers, Rai finds mention as a member of the gang of mafia dons Brijesh Singh and Tribhuvan Singh since 1989. He has an impressive list of criminal charges against him, including heinous ones like attempt to murder, extortion, rioting, and cases under the Gangster Act,” the report said.
Rai had been arrested in October 2015 for inciting violence and arson during a protest rally by sadhus demanding permission for immersion of Ganesha idols in the Ganga, as per The Indian Express.
He was later booked under National Security Act, though the Allahabad HC set aside the charge a few months later and granted him bail.
The Congress party, meanwhile, had projected Rai as a “hero” post his release.
Local vs Outsider
While Rai has been known to play the "local vs outsider" card against PM Modi to woo voters in Varanasi – his election strategy in 2014 – his plan does not appear to have worked for him.
“I guarantee you I will defeat Modi. He is the real threat to the country,” Rai had said in an interview before the 2014 elections to The Hindu.
“The real contest is not Kejriwal vs Modi; it is outsider versus local,” he said, adding, “The city needs someone who understands its soil.”
The Congress nominee, however, faces a credibility crisis due to his strong BJP roots and is unlikely to alter the outcome of the Varanasi election.
(With inputs from DNA, Indian Express, The Hindu)
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