Now, why is Ajai Rai smiling in Varanasi?

AM Jigeesh Varanasi | Updated on November 24, 2017

AJAI RAI, Congress leader

Being Banarasi will see him through, claims the seemingly confident Congress candidate

In a contest between two high-profile candidates, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal, Congress candidate Ajai Rai is pinning his hopes on the one qualification that neither of the two outsiders can boast of — that he is a thoroughbred Banarasi.

The local muscleman, whose quiet campaign has so far not attracted much media attention, believes that eventually, the battle for Varanasi will be fought on an outsider-versus-local plank, in which not just the city’s Muslims but even the BJP’s workers will support him.

Rai, who had been in the BJP for about 15 years, claims that a number of his former colleagues are unhappy with the way Modi and BJP general secretary Amit Shah are running the campaign.

“They all are in touch with me. They love Benares and they want their brother to represent them. A large number of outsiders are managing the campaign. My friends in the BJP tell me that these outsiders are taking the credit for the work done by them,” Rai told Business Line.

He said the language used by certain ‘outside’ leaders has antagonised BJP leaders here.

“We don’t use the language of tu and re. We address people as bhayya and babu. These outsider leaders have no regard for the local activists and they will help me in this election. People of Varanasi use the language of mutual respect,” Rai said.

Rai hopes to split the upper castes votes; these communities have traditionally voted for the BJP. The Congress’ effort this time is to split these votes at a time when the party is facing nationwide anti-incumbency. And unlike the AAP whose volunteers are being routinely roughed up in an unprecedentedly aggressive campaign run by the BJP, no one dares lay a finger on either Rai or his associates. “In the morning I go to villages. I campaign from house to house. In the evening, I come back to the town and hold meetings with the public,” Rai said. The Congress’ hopes of winning this seat, or at least giving a tough fight to Modi, rest on two things — first, preventing a division of Muslim votes and second, using Rai’s son-of-soil image to the hilt.

Although Rai has several criminal charges against him, he is known to have a Robin Hood image among the local population. So, despite the BJP’s claims, he does hope to attract upper caste voters because of his community affiliations among Bhumihaars, a caste that he himself belongs to, as well as Brahmins.

The toughest task, however, is to prevent a split among the Muslims. The main contender for the Muslim vote, along with Rai, is Kejriwal.

In the 2009 elections, it was Rai who indirectly helped BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi win. The 3.5-lakh strong Muslim voters had been divided between Rai, who was a Samajwadi Party candidate, and his bête noire Mukhtar Ansari.

This time Ansari, who too has considerable influence among Muslims, has withdrawn from the race citing his wish to “keep the secular vote united”.

Though it is widely believed in Varanasi that Muslims are gravitating towards Kejriwal, there is a vociferous demand within the community that the votes should not be allowed to split.

“Rai may get the votes of upper caste Hindus. If we add Muslim votes to this, Modi will not go to Lok Sabha from Varanasi,” said local vendor Haji Yaqoob.

Past baggage

But what makes Muslims shy away from voting to Rai is his past, especially his long association with the BJP.

“He was a BJP leader till some years ago. Of course, people will change.

“But the families of those who got killed in communal riots in and around the city are yet to get justice,” said Aslam, a labourer in a weaving centre.

Aslam is countered by his colleague Mohd Rizwan, who cited the 2002 Gujarat riots. “Modi cannot escape from the blame of presiding over the Gujarat genocide,” he said.

Rai and his camp are engaged in hectic negotiations with Ansari and a section of the Muslim clerics to ensure that Muslim votes do not get divided.

(Agencies reported that Ansari’s Quami Ekta Dal had announced its decision to support Rai, a decision that the BJP described as an unholy alliance at the altar of vote-bank politics.)

The Congress believes the absence of a strong minority candidate has defeated the BJP’s efforts to polarise the electorate along communal lines.

“You wait till May 16. The result will be surprising. This time there is no polarisation and Hindus and Muslims are voting for the Congress,” Rai said.

Published on April 29, 2014

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