By announcing Ajay Rai as its candidate from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress has almost ended speculation that party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this high-profile seat.
But the last date for filing nominations in Varanasi, which votes in the last phase of polling, is on 29 April and there could still be a twist in the tale.
A Congress leader, who has been closely involved with the party’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh, disclosed that the issue hasn’t been closed as yet.
“There is disappointment among party cadres (with the announcement of Ajay Rai’s candidature instead of Gandhi’s). It would be great if she (Priyanka Gandhi) decides to contest. There’s still time,” the party leader told The Quint.
On being asked if there will be twist, the leader said, “If there is a twist, it will take place on the last day or close to it. Then Modi won’t get a chance to seek a second seat or come up with some other trick”.
Apparently, the Congress has been seriously considering fielding Gandhi from Varanasi and the deliberations around it were underway even a day before Rai’s candidature was announced. Party functionaries privy to the deliberations disclose that there were a few factors that were being weighed.
The Congress leadership found that the arithmetic in Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency wasn’t quite conducive to Gandhi putting up a strong challenge to Prime Minister Modi. The prospects of the Congress, or any Opposition candidate for that matter, would critically hinge on the Muslim and Dalit voters, who respectively account for 15 percent and 13 percent of the electorate in the seat.
“Even in 2014, when Arvind Kejriwal got over 20 percent of the votes, it was largely because of Muslims. If Priyanka Gandhi contests she will be assured of Muslim votes and also of Dalits, with the BSP not putting up a candidate in the seat as it belongs to the SP’s quota,” a Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh said.
The SP has announced Shalini Yadav as its candidate in Varanasi.
“Other than Muslims and Dalits, Priyanka Gandhi can get some of the Congress’ traditional Upper Caste votes that helped the party win in 2009. Add to this a chunk of Kurmi votes due to our alliance with Krishna Patel. But this would mean only an assured 35 percent votes. There is still a deficit,” the leader said.
In 2014, PM Modi got 56.4 percent of the votes and his nearest rival was Arvind Kejriwal at 20.3 percent. Ajay Rai, the current Congress candidate polled 7.3 percent, BSP’s Vijay Jaiswal got 5.9 percent votes and SP’s Kailash Chaurasiya got 4.4 percent. Overall 43.6 percent voters did not vote for Modi in 2014.
To defeat Modi, a candidate would have to consolidate these 43.6 percent votes and bring about a 6.5 percent swing in favour of the Opposition and an equivalent swing against Modi.
This is not an easy task.
Congress insiders revealed that Gandhi has a packed schedule till the first week of May. Only the last two weeks of campaigning were yet to be finalised.
“She is our trump card. The choice is between utilising her in one seat or deploying her across several winnable seats. There is extremely high demand for her as a campaigner, not just in UP but across the country. The UP unit in particular wants her to campaign in a few seats extensively to maximise the party’s chances of winning,” a party source said.
There is also a section in the party which says that Priyanka Gandhi hasn’t been utilised in battleground states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to the extent that she should have.
“She is getting a good response wherever she is speaking. She should campaign across the country and not just UP, where Congress is weak in many seats,” a party office bearer said.
Many also say that Gandhi not contesting from Varanasi would be the Congress’ way of strengthening the Mahagathbandhan. Her entry into the political fray would have created confusion among anti-BJP voters in Eastern UP. But now in most seats, it has become a two-way fight between the BJP and the Mahagathbandhan.
“By fielding Priyanka ji from Varanasi, we would be making this election about Modi instead of focussing on what is strategically important to us. This is what BJP wants,” the officer bearer said.
The main argument being given by Congress leaders who want Priyanka Gandhi to contest from Varanasi is that it would send the message that the party is giving a serious fight to Modi.
“It will energise the cadres across the country and send the signal that we have the ability to take on Modi,” a party leader said.
Several party leaders as well as intellectuals who support the party, are said to have conveyed their desire to see Gandhi contesting against Modi in Varanasi.
“It would make the Congress the pivot of the Opposition and strengthen the nation-wide narrative against the Modi government,” an adviser of the party leadership said.
Those who are still batting for Gandhi’s candidature said that while announcing Rai’s name would create confusion for some time, it would enable the party to weather the momentum that would follow Modi’s 25 April roadshow in Varanasi, after which Gandhi's name can be announced.
It is clear that the party is divided on Gandhi’s candidature in Varanasi and what would be a strategically better decision for the Congress. Apparently Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi are still examining the feedback on Rai’s candidature instead of Gandhi.
There is also likely to be some discussion with Akhilesh Yadav regarding the possibility of a common candidate against Prime Minister Modi.The final picture will be clear only on 29 April.
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