Congress may field Priyanka from Amethi, not Varanasi

The thinking is that a last minute announcement would take the BJP by surprise.

After a wild card entry into Uttar Pradesh politics, Priyanka Gandhi is being prepared for her next big move. She could be declared as Congress candidate for Amethi Lok Sabha seat that is presently held by her brother and Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

Priyanka was appointed general secretary (east) of the party in January. Though active in politics over a decade, her role earlier was restricted to nursing the Gandhi family pocket borough of Amethi and Rae Barely. The latter seat is held by her mother Sonia Gandhi.

Congress sources say the announcement regarding Priyanka may come in the final days of filing nominations papers. The thinking is that a last minute announcement would take the BJP by surprise. The two constituencies go to poll on May 6th.

Senior party strategists believe the move would help the party in three ways. One it would blunt the criticism that Rahul is contesting from two seats as he is unsure of his success. Second the seat would remain within the family due to Priyanka’s entry and finally a straight third time defeat for firebrand BJP leader Smriti Irani could seal her political fate.

Earlier in 2004 Smriti Irani was defeated by Kapil Sibal in a Delhi constituency. In 2014, despite a Modi wave she lost to Rahul. Congress party insiders say the family should be able to retain its pocket borough notwithstanding the high pitched campaign by Smriti Irani.

There are other calculations which the party strategists feel could come to the aide of the party. Priyanka’s electoral entry could further enthuse the cadres and she could help in spreading the appeal of the Congress party to a larger swathe of the region.

Sultanpur is a constituency in the immediate neighbourhood which Congress is eyeing. Union minister Maneka Gandhi, the sister-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, is contesting from the seat. The siblings are keen to take on their aunt, who has been critical of them lately.

The BSP-SP alliance has fielded Chandra Bhadra Singh alias Sonu Singh from the constituency. He is a BSP member and a local strongman. The Congress is fielding its senior leader Sanjay Singh. They won’t mind if Sanjay loses to Sonu as their real target is Maneka.

Strategy for Varanasi

With this new thinking, the Congress party seems to have given up its earlier idea of fielding Priyanka Gandhi from Varanasi against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even Priyanka had on more than two occasions, though in a lighter vein, asked party workers whether she should be contesting from Varanasi this time around.

The Congress is in an alliance with Krishna Patel of Apna Dal (K). She is the wife of late Sone Lal Patel, an influential Kurmi (OBC) leader of the state. Two seats – Basti and Gonda – have been allotted to the Apna Dal (K). In addition, Niranjan Singh Patel, son-in-law of Krishna Patel, have joined the Congress in the presence of Rahul Gandhi.

The total electorate of Varanasi is about 16 lakh. Of this the Congress is eyeing the votes of some two lakh Kurmis, three lakh Muslims, two-and-a-half lakh brahmins, one-and-a-half lakh dalits and approximately 80,000 yadavs. How many of them would actually vote for the Congress can only be guesswork.

The party is weighing its options on who could be pitted against Modi. Top on the list is Vishambhar Nath Mishra, who is the priest and caretaker of Sankat Mochan Mandir of Varanasi. Interestingly, besides being chief priest, Mishra is also a professor in the department of electronics engineering in the Indian Institute of Technology (BHU), Varanasi.

His father, late Veer Bhadra Mishra, was the chief mahant of the Sankat Mochan Temple and also the head of the civil engineering department at the IIT (BHU). Apart from being a recipient of several national and international accolades, he was also named as “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine in 1999 for his work related to the cleaning of the Ganges through the Sankat Mochan Foundation.

Others in the race are two senior leaders from Varanasi: strongman Ajay Rai who contested unsuccessfully against Modi in 2014 and Rajesh Mishra, who succeeded in 2004 from the constituency with Congress ticket.m The party also realises that not everything is going to be a smooth affair.

The withdrawal of Rahul Gandhi from Amethi could result in the BJP upping its ante and mocking the Congress president saying that since he faced defeat he chose to flee to Wayanad.

(The writer is Senior Editor – Politics with BTVI – Business Television India)

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