The stage is set, it seems.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a re-election from Varanasi, there’s been complete mystery over the Opposition candidates who will battle it out with the PM in the holy city. Today, the regional Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP) alliance declared Shalini Yadav, former Congress mayor who was inducted in SP, as its candidate.
But most of the discussions on the political scenario in Varanasi and Uttar Pradesh have been about Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s candidature. While she is the general secretary of the Congress and in-charge of Eastern UP, questions continue to loom over her contesting against Modi.
The Congress is yet to make an official statement, but Priyanka (47) has dropped some hints. In her recent interactions with the media after her two-day trip to Wayanad, Priyanka said, “If Congress President asks me to contest, I will be happy to contest (from Varanasi).”
Sources in the Congress have also suggested that party chief Rahul Gandhi is most likely to field his younger sister from Varanasi. If this happens, Priyanka, in her maiden contest, will be fighting against the PM himself. Priyanka was formally inducted in the party only three month ago, but she has been nurturing the Amethi and Raebareli constituencies for Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, respectively, for almost two decades.
Ground work on
According to sources in the Congress party, two teams of experts, one from Delhi and another from Varanasi, are preparing the ground for Priyanka’s electoral debut. Congress’ Varanasi chief Praja Nath Sharma and three other senior leaders — Ajay Rai, Sitaram Kesari and Bajirao Khade — are handling the command.
“The Delhi team is chalking out election strategy, making her travel and campaign plans in UP, identifying venues for public meetings and also finalising the groups Priyanka is due to meet. At the same time, city Congress has been micro-planning, such as obtaining requisite permissions, preparing campaign material and organizing booth level meetings,” a senior Congress leader said.
Priyanka’s Delhi team is supervised by the former Indian Administrative Officer of 1994 batch (Rajasthan Cadre) Dhiraj Srivastava, now serving as Priyanka’s personal assistant. Srivastava was instrumental in bringing about the Congress and Samajwadi Party alliance in 2017 Assembly elections, which later dismantled owing to their election loss. He is well versed with the Congress circles in Amethi and Rae Bareli, boroughs of the Gandhi family. He moved to Delhi as an Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council. However, with the dissolution of the NAC in 2014, he moved to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.
Srivastava took Voluntary Retirement from the administrative services early this year, around the same time as when Priyanka was inducted in the party. He was heading the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation on Central Deputation of which Priyanka is also a member.
Sharma says, “A coordination committee of all frontal organisations of Congress has been constituted to strengthen the party cadre. As soon as Priyanka’s name will be announced, all plans will be rolled out.”
Senior Congress leader in Varanasi, Ajay Rai, who contested against Modi last time, says, “It was the Congress cadre which first demanded that Priyanka ji should contest from Varanasi. Our arrangements with regards to her nomination, campaign and polling are almost complete.”
Priyanka can trouble the PM and BJP in eastern UP
Priyanka’s surprise entry may upset the BJP’s calculations to some extent. The BJP has anyway been on somewhat tricky grounds ever since the SP, BSP and Rashtriya Lok Dal forged a pre-poll alliance earlier this year. The alliance aims to curb the division of votes that had favoured BJP in 2014 elections, giving its largest ever tally from UP (73 out of 80 seats).
“Although Priyanka will still be considered as a weak candidate against the PM in Varanasi, the advantage of optics would be loaded in her favour forcing the BJP into a defensive campaign mode,” says an observer.
Of course, with Priyanka entering the battle, BJP will have to shift its attention to Varanasi, an otherwise safe seat for the PM. This, in turn, will give Congress a much-needed breather in other parts of the state. Although, Priyanka’s nomination would make it difficult for Modi to contest from a second Lok Sabha constituency. If he chooses to do so, his decision would be seen as having been forced upon by the Gandhi scion.
There are five Assembly seats in Varanasi, two urban and three rural. There are around 17 lakh voters in the constituency of which Muslims constitute 20%, Brahmins 15%, Vaishya 15% and OBCs nearly 40%.
With extensive micro-planning on all five segments, Congress is in no mood of giving Modi a cakewalk. At the same time, it is strengthening its network for 2022 Assembly elections.
“In the 2014 polls which were washed out in the Modi wave, PM had got close to 5.8 lakh votes out of 15 lakhs. The opposition votes were about 3.95 lakh. Since AAP is not contesting this time, a Gandhi family challenging the PM would electrify the cadre and supporters, across the constituency consolidating anti-BJP votes. The result could be surprising, not only in Varanasi but also in 20 other seats in eastern UP,” a senior Congress leader says.
Congress’ Varanasi chief Praja Nath Sharma says, “Apart from underperformance on economic and job fronts at national level, people of Varanasi are unhappy with Modi over the poor implementation of Namami Gange project, destruction of heritage for Vishwanath Corridor project and purchase of large tracts of land from farmers to construct the Ring Road at rates much lower than the prevailing market prices. People would reject him this time to choose Priyanka.”
Not everyone shares the Congress’ enthusiasm. Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, Professor of Indian Institute of Technology-BHU and Mahant of Varanasi’s Sankatmochan Temple, says, “With her (Priyanka’s) entry, the Varanasi elections would be unipolar, a free and easy pass for the PM.”
Political commentator Ramesh Dixit says, “Unlike BJP’s rude and abusive campaigns, Priyanka’s decent language and distinct campaign style will influence women, youth and upper caste voters especially Brahmins who had moved to BJP over the years. She would give a tough contest.”
Update: The story was published a day before the Congress announced the name of Ajay Rai as its contestant from Varanasi.