Even a week after announcing Ajay Rai as its candidate to oppose Narendra Modi from Varanasi his name is still to figure in the list of Congress candidates declared so far. The Congress Central Election Committee (CEC) has landed itself in a peculiar quandary. The party has so far announced 419 candidates. Last Tuesday when the party decided to field Rai against Modi, he became its 420th candidate.
Party insiders said the Rai doesn't want to be candidate number 420, or "char sau bees" used in Hindi to refer to a bad character. This popular slang of North India, might turn out to be a major disadvantage for Rai during campaigning, he feels. This usage comes from section 420 of the IPC which refers to cheating and other related crimes.
Also Rai's background as a 'bahubali' (strongman) who moves around with his gun-toting private army, makes the terminology appropriate for him, even party leaders admit. Also political honesty is not his forte. Rai has been a party hopper who has won elections on his own over past five terms -- thrice on BJP ticket, then as an independent and on Congress ticket in 2012.
In between, he flirted with the Samajwadi Party and contested the last Varanasi election against Dr Murli Manohar Joshi after the BJP denied him the ticket. He, however, finished third with 1,23,874 votes as another "Bahubali" with the same Robin Hood reputation, Mukhtar Ansari, came second with 1,85,911 votes. Ansari has withdrawn his candidature this time to prevent the splitting of anti-Modi votes.
Now the Congress hopes to win the entire Muslim votes in Varanasi and they constitute over 3 lakh voters in the 17-lakh strong constituency. The Samajwadi Party has named its former state minister Kailash Chaurasia, who is known as the Paan king of the holy city, to enter the fray while the BSP has declared Vijay Prakash Jaiswal as its candidate to sway the Bania voters said to be another three lakh.
Congress leaders feel, if the SP and BSP also withdraw their candidates to make it a fight between secularism and communalism, Modi may find Varanasi a difficult ground to win against Rai. AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, who is another formidable candidate, may not have that much local appeal, though he too will split the anti-Modi secular votes.
Elections here are scheduled for the last phase on May 12.