Here is why Congress did not field Priyanka Gandhi Vadra from Varanasi

After fuelling speculation that she might contest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi, the Congress on Thursday said not Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, but Ajay Rai would again be its candidate from the seat.

The decision left many in Varanasi, who had laid store in the Congress fielding a stronger candidate, disappointed. Earlier this month, several smaller parties and activist groups, including those opposed to the Congress, had given a call to the opposition to field a common candidate against Modi.

Many Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party workers had also hoped the Congress would field Priyanka, or a respected local face, to challenge Modi. Apart from 49-year-old Rai, who has been a party hopper, Sankat Mochan temple priest VN Mishra was inclined to contest.

On Monday, the SP announced the name of Shalini Yadav as its candidate from the seat. She had recently crossed over form the Congress and had unsuccessfully contested the 2017 mayoral elections. She is the daughter-in-law of Shyam Lal Yadav of the Congress, who represented Varanasi in the Lok Sabha in 1984. She is a lightweight candidate against Modi.

The assessment in political circles in Varanasi was that the SP would withdraw its candidate if the Congress fields Priyanka. Varanasi of 2019 is different from what it was in 2014. Then amid the Modi wave, Varanasi had sent the PM to the Lok Sabha with a huge victory margin of nearly 3.7 lakh votes. Causes of current anger are several, but not all can be attributed to the PM’s tenure as an MP from the seat.

Weavers of famous Banarasi saris have continued to leave the city, to settle in Bengaluru and elsewhere. The city’s wooden toy industry is on its last legs. Both these are part of a continuing trend, which was exacerbated by the roll out of GST, with middlemen misleading weavers that they needed to cough up the tax as well. Some sections are also upset about the construction of the Vishwanath corridor, demolition of smaller temples and displacement of people.

However, Varanasi has also seen huge government investments in infrastructure building, and private sector companies have taken up creating assets in villages adopted by the PM. The Congress believes Modi is unbeatable in Varanasi. It has opted not to expend its resources in an unwinnable seat despite itself fuelling speculation that Priyanka could contest. Now the Congress says the idea behind fuelling speculation that Priyanka might contest from Varanasi was to rattle the BJP and it had achieved its objective.

The Congress has focussed on 18-seats across UP where it says it is putting up a good fight. Interestingly, Varanasi is one of these seats. On rest of the seats, the Congress has fielded candidates with the intent to eat into the votes of the BJP, primarily the Brahmins who are upset with the Yogi Adityanath government, and help the SP-BSP-RLD mahagathbandhan.

The Congress says the party needs Priyanka to campaign in its “winnable” seats for the next four phases, instead of getting bogged down in one seat of Varanasi, which in any case is going to be impossible to win. It believes it has an opportunity to win at least five of the 18-seats, and hopes to win as many as 10. For that, it needs Priyanka to campaign vigorously in these seats, while Congress president Rahul Gandhi campaigns in rest of the country.

Moreover, a loss by a big margin could hurt Priyanka’s future career. In any case, Priyanka is set to contest from one of the two seats, either Wayanad or Amethi, that Congress president Rahul Gandhi is set to win and subsequently vacate.

However, the Congress is at somewhat of a loss to explain its decision to field Ajay Rai again. Rai, who has a reputation of being a bahubali, or a strongman, started his electoral career in the BJP, then switching to SP and finally to the Congress.

In 2014, Rai received a mere 7.2 per cent votes against Modi, with even his community of Bhumihars not supporting him. Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal received 20 per cent of the votes, primarily from minorities. Varanasi witnessed a Hindu consolidation. The Congress believes Kejriwal committed a mistake by contesting against Modi in 2014, which costed him political capital.

Locals say a repeat of the 2014 margin would have been unlikely if the Congress had at least fielded a candidate more acceptable to mahagathbandhan supporters.

As things stand, Varanasi could prove to a no contest with anti-BJP votes set to split between the SP and Congress candidates.

Varanasi goes to polls on May 19.