The declaration of five-time MLA Ajay Rai as the Congress nominee in Varanasi ended the prolonged uncertainty and speculation in the party over who would take on the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. However, it failed to generate any significant ripples in electoral waters as Rai, a Bhumihar by caste, is at best a local-level leader with limited following in certain parts of the temple town.
(Bhumihars number about 1.75 lakh in the total 16 lakh electorate of Varanasi.)
People were expecting a high-voltage dramatic battle in Varanasi, what with top Congress leaders like Anand Sharma, Digvijay Singh, Rashid Alvi and even P Chidambaram expressing willingness to take on the gladiator from Gujarat. Names of Rahul Gandhi and even sister Priyanka did the rounds as the Congress remained undecided for a long time. Former MP Rajesh Mishra, a "local" leader, was also a strong contender.
The only brownie point that the Congress has managed to score by naming Rai is that they did not "parachute" a candidate into Varanasi like the other two high-profile candidates – Modi and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal. But, Ajay Rai's 'chequered' political past, limited acceptability and his record of criminal cases could make the Congress look apologetic in an electoral battle sure to grab attention across the country.
"Ajay Rai is a committed party worker and leader connected with the grassroots. He has contested and won several elections in Varanasi," Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala said on Tuesday while announcing Rai's candidature in Delhi.
What he perhaps forgot to mention was that he has contested and won those elections from different parties, and that he has thrice been MLA from the BJP whose towering icon he is supposed to take on this time. Also, that when he debuted in politics in 1993, Rai was known as a local "goonda" before he donned the mantle of a politician when he won the first Assembly election in 1996.
However, that is not to dismiss Rai as a complete non-entity in Varanasi. His debut on a BJP ticket was remarkable as he defeated CPI veteran and eight-time MLA Udal from Koalsala (Varanasi). He continued his winning streak in 2002 and 2007, both times on a BJP ticket.
In 2009, he left the BJP on being denied the Lok Sabha ticket and contested as an SP candidate against his parent party's nominee MM Joshi. Rai lost but still got 1.23 lakh votes, almost double the tally of the then sitting Congress MP Rajesh Mishra. His victory as an independent MLA in the 2010 by-election during the Mayawati regime is also cited as a reference point of his "power politics".
"It will be a direct contest between Modi and Rai," predicts Mohd Ishaque, editor of a Varanasi-based Urdu daily. He says that the Bhumihars (1.75 lakh) and Muslims (2.5 lakh) will vote for Congress putting Rai in a challenging position, while Kejriwal would be "sidelined".
On the flip side, points out Amit Srivastava, a TV channel reporter in Varanasi, Rai represents the Pindra assembly seat which is not part of Varanasi Lok Sabha seat. "Rai does not have the stature to match Modi. Besides, his following is limited to Bhumihar-dominated areas," he says.
2009 result of Varanasi Lok Sabha seat:
MM Joshi (BJP) -- 2,03,122
Mukhtar Ansari (BSP) 1,85,911
Ajay Rai (SP) -- 1,23,874
Rajesh Mishra (Cong) -- 66,386
—In the 1999, Lok Sabha election, BJP's SP Jaiswal defeated Congress Party's Rajesh Mishra by over 50,000 votes.
—In the 2004 election, Rajesh Mishra turned the tables, defeating BJP's SP Jaiswal by over 50,000 votes.
SP: Ramesh Chaurasiya
BSP: Vijay Jaiswal
Qaumi Ekta Dal: Mukhtar Ansari (probable)