New Delhi/Varanasi: The Congress on Thursday pretty much conceded the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat to the Bharatiya Janata Party without any contest by deciding not to field Priyanka Gandhi as its candidate despite weeks of speculation and comments by the party’s general secretary herself that she wasn’t averse to the idea of challenging Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his constituency.
The Congress, instead, fielded local strongman Ajai Rai who had fought against Mr Modi in 2014 and had come third after Arvind Kejriwal. While Mr Kejriwal got approximately 2,09,000 votes against Mr Modi’s 5,86,000 votes, Mr Rai secured 75,000 votes.
Though the fight in Varanasi was heavily loaded in favour of the BJP and its star candidate, the Congress’ decision to not let its own star campaigner to directly take on Mr Modi is being seen as the party’s instinct to protect the Gandhi scion from the embarrassment of a defeat.
Highly placed sources said that the Congress’ core group committee, headed by party chief Rahul Gandhi, met on Wednesday and unanimously prevailed upon its general secretary, Ms Priyanka Gandhi, to desist from contesting Lok Sabha elections from Varanasi.
Ignoring her keenness to take on Mr Modi, the core group committee was of the view that since Ms Gandhi has just entered politics it won’t be wise to “rush” into a high-profile poll battle. It felt that she should first establish herself in Uttar Pradesh. UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi is not part of the Congress core group committee.
Sources privy to the deliberations said that the main reason behind the party’s reluctance was that till the last moment the Congress was hoping the Mahagathbandhan of Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) would support Ms Gandhi’s candidature from Varanasi on its platform, and things could then be taken forward.
However, the grand alliance’s unwillingness put an end to all hopes of Ms Gandhi contesting from Varanasi as it was felt that her prospects would be considerably weakened without the support of the SP-BSP alliance.
Sources added that had the grand alliance agreed to back her, then Mr Gandhi would have agreed to his sister contesting from Varanasi. However, when it became clear that the Mahagathbandhan was not keen on offering its support to Ms Gandhi, and on April 23 SP announced the name of Shalini Yadav as its candidate from Varanasi, the Congress decided to field Ajay Rai.
Party sources indicated that the Mahagathbandhan’s reluctance to back Ms Gandhi’s candidature was influenced by the apprehension that had she thrown her hat in the fray, the grand alliance’s seats in the neighbouring areas could have been influenced. This would have been counter-productive to their poll prospects.
The nine-member Congress core group committee comprises A.K. Antony, P. Chidambaram, Ashok Gehlot, Mallikarjun Kharge, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ahmad Patel, Jairam Ramesh, K.C. Venugopal and Randeep Surjewala.
During Wednesday’s meeting, all the members except Mr Gehlot (who is busy in Rajasthan which goes to polls on April 29), were present.
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