After raising expectations of fielding a ‘formidable’ candidate in Varanasi against Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the Congress on Tuesday decided to field its sitting MLA Ajay Rai.

Mr. Rai had come third runner-up for the seat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, contesting then on the Samajwadi Party ticket.

To explain its decision – described by many as a ‘damp squib’ considering that Congress seniors like Digvijay Singh had volunteered to take on Mr. Modi – the party invoked the ‘son-of-the-soil’ argument, adding that Mr. Rai had a history of electoral success in Varanasi.

Conceding that a number of Congress veterans were eager to contest the elections in Varanasi, party spokesman Randeep Surjewala said Mr. Rai was chosen for the task in view of being a local familiar with the dynamics of a city billed as one of the oldest living cities in the world.

Given Mr. Rai’s political history – he has been with both the BJP and the Samajwadi Party – the Congress also had to face a number of questions on whether he would be another ‘Tomar-Bhagirath’ (two Congress candidates who switched to the BJP after they were given the party ticket).

On Mr. Rai’s chances of winning against Mr. Modi – considering the Congress candidate had come third in the seat in 2009 when the BJP had fielded Murli Manohar Joshi – Mr. Surjewala said: “We are confident. This is not a clash between two individuals but two competing visions of India.’’ While Dr. Joshi had polled 30.52 per cent of the votes, the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate, Mukhtar Ansari, came second with 27.94 per cent votes and Mr. Rai a distant third with 18.61 per cent of votes in 2009.