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'Suspense' ends; Priyanka won't contest from Varanasi

In Varanasi, it's not Priyanka, but Ajay Rai who will face Modi

Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra waves at the supporters during an election rally in support of the party candidate Shiv Sharan Kushwaha (to Priyanka's right), in Jhansi on Thursday. PTI

Congress on Thursday fielded Ajay Rai against Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat, ending speculation about Priyanka Gandhi Vadra entering the electoral fray from the temple town in Uttar Pradesh.

Congress leadership did not want to confine Priyanka to one seat as she was given the responsibility to revive the party eastern Uttar Pradesh, a region where BJP had made huge inroads after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Besides, there was a view that Varanasi had been the stronghold of the BJP and the city would not like to lose its VIP status by defeating a Prime Minister. The Congress party has always considered Priyanka as a 'brahmastra', and a defeat in the debut election would have sent a wrong message to the party cadre.

"The entire country needs Priyanka Gandhi's leadership. She is the general secretary for a large part of Uttar Pradesh. We aim to win maximum seats from that region and voters are impacted by her leadership and simplicity," Congress spokesperson Ragini Nayak said on the party's decision to field Rai instead of Priyanka from Varanasi.

AICC General Secretary Mukul Wasnik announced Rai's candidature on Thursday. The Congress also fielded Madhusudan Tiwari from Gorakhpur against BJP's Ravi Kishan, a popular Bhojpuri film star.

A headline trick?

Priyanka gave rise to the speculation with her comments that she would like to contest from Varanasi if her brother asked her to do so. The speculation intensified after Congress President Rahul Gandhi said that he would like to maintain the suspense over his sister's poll plans. The “will she, won't she” debate also helped the Congress to remain in television news headlines, which otherwise were dominated by Modi.

Rai started his political career as a BJP youth wing activist and later shifted to Samajwadi Party before joining the Congress in 2009. A five-term UP legislator, he finished third in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with just 75,614 votes. AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal came second with 2.09 lakh votes. Modi had won the seat with a margin of 3.71 lakh votes.

Modi will file his nomination papers for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat on Friday in the presence of senior NDA leaders, including JD(U) president Nitish Kumar and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray.

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