Party hopper, five-time MLA, faced Modi in Varanasi — who is new UP Congress chief Ajay Rai

New Delhi: The Congress has appointed five-time MLA from Varanasi district Ajay Rai as the president of its Uttar Pradesh unit in the run up to 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Rai, a Bhumihar, replaces Brijlal Khabri, a Dalit, for the top job in the UP Congress.

Khabri was appointed president of the UP Congress last October, months after the party was decimated in the state assembly elections held earlier that year.

Prior to his appointment as UP Congress chief Thursday, Rai (53) was incharge of the Prayagraj zone, where the Bhumihar community has a dominant presence.

Ajay Rai wields significant clout in eastern Uttar Pradesh, especially in Varanasi, which is why he was Congress’s choice to take on BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi from the Varanasi parliamentary seat in 2014 and then again in 2019, when Modi was incumbent PM. Both times, Rai stood third. He secured a total of 1.5 lakh votes in 2019. 

However, with months to go for the general election, Rai now faces an uphill task.

The Congress party, which was in power in Uttar Pradesh till 1989, was reduced to one seat in the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls — Sonia Gandhi was the party’s only candidate to have been elected to the Lower House from UP. And while the party secured an overall vote share of six percent, then party president Rahul Gandhi lost his own seat Amethi.

In the 2022 UP assembly polls too, Congress faced a near wipe out as it was reduced to just two seats with an overall vote share of 2.33 percent, compared to the seven seats and 6.25 percent it polled in the previous assembly elections in 2017.

Apart from Rai’s appointment as president of UP Congress, the party made two other key organisational changes Thursday. It appointed Mukul Wasnik as general secretary incharge of Gujarat, while Randeep Singh Surjewala was handed over the additional charge as general secretary incharge of Madhya Pradesh, which goes to the polls later this year.

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Congress candidate against Modi

After he joined the Congress in 2012, the party fielded Rai from the Pindra seat in the assembly elections held later that year and he won. Rai has since lost the last two assembly polls from Pindra, in 2017 and then again in 2022. 

Rai fought his first assembly election on a BJP ticket in 1996, defeating the nine-time CPI MLA Udal in Kolasla. He retained the seat in 2002 and again in 2007 for the BJP.

Though Rai was keen to fight the 2009 Lok Sabha election from Varanasi, the party instead fielded senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi from the seat. This resulted in Rai resigning from the party. He then contested the general election that year on a Samajwadi Party (SP) ticket and came in third, after Joshi and gangster-turned-politician Mukhtar Ansari, who contested the polls on a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket. Later that year, Rai contested and won the Kolasla assembly bye-election as an Independent.

While Rai eventually came head-to-head with Ansari politically in 2009, their rivalry goes back decades. Earlier in June this year, Ansari was sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1991 murder of Ajay Rai’s elder brother and local strongman Awadhesh Rai.

Ajay Rai was a key eyewitness and complainant in the case.

“Today, with the blessings of Baba Vishwanath, we have won the 32-year-old fight which I fought with my friends, family and our lawyers…we were waiting for 32 years and you can understand what it means for me, my family and our elder brother’s daughter, all of us want to thank the judiciary,” Rai had told reporters following the verdict.

He added, “We fought for 32 years. The one who keeps standing against mafias, will win over them. We kept fighting even as the governments changed.” Rai too faces several cases and was once reportedly seen to be close to gangster-turned-politician Brijesh Singh.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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