‘I guarantee you I will defeat Modi’
In the narrow lanes of Varanasi, it is widely believed that senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Murli Manohar Joshi was saved from an imminent defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha election because of the communal polarisation that took effect as late as 48 hours before polling.
Supporters of the Samajwadi Party candidate, Ajay Rai, who held considerable clout among locals, allegedly campaigned for Dr . Joshi to ensure the defeat of alleged don-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari.
Mr. Rai and Mr. Ansari are viewed as rival bahubalis (strongmen) of Purvanchal. In the end, Dr. Joshi won by about 17,000 votes. Mr. Rai stood third, securing 1.23 lakh (18.61 per cent) votes. He later joined the Congress.
Seated in his residence in Varanasi, Mr. Rai denies he made any attempt to polarise votes in 2009. “The people took the step on their own,” he claims.
Chosen by the Congress to take on two high-profile opponents — the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal — from Varanasi, Mr. Rai is confident the tables will turn in his favour in this election.
“I guarantee you I will defeat Modi. He is the real threat to the country,” says Mr. Rai, who considers himself the “local underdog” in the battle of “outsiders.”
“The real contest here is not Kejriwal vs Modi; it is outsider versus local,” he says adding, “The city needs someone who understands its soil.”
Calling Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal as “traitors,” Mr. Rai said “Mr. Kejriwal ran away [from Delhi] and the other [Mr. Modi] will run away (to Vadodara) after winning. In politics, there is place for shaheed [martyrs] not traitors.”
Though a Bhumihar, a community with a considerable presence in the constituency, Mr. Rai has a rapport across castes, including Brahmins and Muslims, the two largest communities in Varanasi.
Beginning his career with the BJP's student wing, Mr. Rai defeated nine-time CPI MLA Udal in 1996 from Kolasla (now Pindra), a seat he retains till today.
In 2009, he quit the BJP after the party chose Dr. Joshi as its candidate from Varanasi. “I was promised the ticket [from Varanasi] and I had worked hard for a year. For reasons unknown, I was shunted out at the last moment,” he says. In the 2012 Assembly elections, Mr. Rai routed the BJP candidate, who secured a paltry 3,000 votes, from Pindra.
Mr. Rai’s motive now is to “teach the BJP a lesson,” and he believes the stage is set for him to cause the biggest upset in the country.