Any unknown face in this narrow lane opposite the Chetganj police station in Varanasi is carefully stared at.
If you step up to the door that opens right into the lane a couple of toughies with loaded shotguns step out. They escort you inside around a well-manicured lawn bordered with bricks painted in white, green and saffron – the Congress Party colours.
Up a few steps and through large double doors is Ajai Rai’s home. Before Rai became famous across the country as the Congress man who would take on Narendra Modi in the upcoming elections to the Lok Sabha or lower house of Parliament, he was known as the bahubali or “strong arm” of Varanasi.
The shaven-headed, moustachioed Rai, 42, has declared in his affidavit to the election commission that he has nine criminal cases, including two under a law against gangsters, against him, and has recently been linked with illegal gun trading. He’s also one of the Congress Party’s strongest candidates.
Rai’s long career in politics includes more than a decade as a BJP member of the Uttar Pradesh assembly from nearby Kolasla. After the BJP chose another candidate to represent it from Varanasi in the 2009 national election, Rai left the party, joining first the Samajwadi Party and then, in 2012, the Congress Party where he became a legislator from Pindra.
While many predict Narendra Modi will win the Varanasi seat hands down, it may not be that easy. After Mukhtar Ansari, the runner-up in the 2009 elections, withdrew to help consolidate what he called the secular vote, a euphemism for Muslim votes that he commands, Rai may get some of those votes. But Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party may also draw a large chunk of votes that may have otherwise gone to Rai, ultimately aiding Modi.
Rai is also waging a fierce fight against the party that he feels betrayed him. In the interview below, he discusses why he left the party, and why he thinks Modi will lose the Varanasi seat.
The interview below has been translated from Hindi and edited.
How strong a rival do you consider Narendra Modi?
I believe what Modi is trying to do—roam around the country selling a dream—will not work in Banaras (Varanasi). The biggest mistake he made was getting his cadres to slogan—Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi [A distortion of a religious chant in praise of Lord Shiva, essentially “destroyer, destroyer” ].
Banars is the city of Mahadev [Lord Shiva]. Every grain in this city has Shiva in it. It is our tradition.
The phrase is not used even for Kashi Naresh [the titular king of Varanasi], who is considered the representative of Mahadev. It is only used for the Lord. Modi considers himself even above God. He will pay for it.
What else goes against him?
The other thing is he is an outsider. None of the outsiders that have come here have given time to Banaras.
He is also fighting elections in his home state from Vadodara. He said filing his nomination in Vadodara that it will be his karmabhoomi [place of work]. So what will Banaras be? His rangbhoomi [place for fun]? Or will it be his paryatak bhoomi [sight-seeing place] which he will just tour?
People here like to see and meet their leaders.
What is the main election issue in Varanasi?
The current and past Mayors [from the BJP] have spent their entire tenures creating trouble. There were problems earlier also. But the previous Mayors were better. They were also from the BJP. But they were better.
Now look at the sewage system and the drainage system; nothing works. The sewage pipelines have been laid but for the past five or six years they have spent arguing where to set up the treatment plant. The city has got loads of money under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Mission but what’s the use?
Before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, you were with the BJP and the Varanasi seat was promised to you…
Yes, of course.
What happened then?
I want to be very clear about it. I fought elections for the first time in 1996 against Comrade Udal [nine-time Communist Party of India MLA] and beat him. Then I won in 2002 and BJP made me a minister even. Then after I fought the 2007 elections, leaders of the RSS told me to prepare to fight the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
The RSS or BJP told you?
Both told me. But when they saw that I was working very hard in the constituency and my influence was increasing, they deliberately started harassing me.
When national leader Joshiji [the BJP Murli Manohar Joshi] came, the RSS leader Shiv Narayan Singh told me ‘Joshi is here so you prepare for Chandauli constituency. Your ticket is final.’ I was okay with that too. But then Joshi and others said ‘We won’t let him fight from Chandauli either.’
I worked there for 15-18 years. I thought if I gave in, I will be known as a coward, a weakling. So I was forced to go to the Samajwadi Party for a ticket.
After you won the 2012 assembly elections on a Congress ticket, did any of the BJP leaders get in touch with you to go back to the party?
Many of them were in touch, except Joshiji. Everyone else tried to get me back but I refused –because after working for them for so many years, they could not understand my commitment and loyalty [to Congress]. I thank Sonia Gandhi that I worked only for five years and she considered me worthy of fighting elections against Narendra Modi.
Was [Modi aide] Amit Shah in touch with you?
Not directly. But his people were in touch. But I refused.
But you would not have been a candidate?
No. They gave me a lot of other offers. They wanted to. But I refused point blank. I said I don’t even want to talk. I despise the BJP. What is then the point of getting a position?
I have gained everything – beaten Udal, Sonelal Patel (president of Apna Dal), Om Prakash Rajbhar of BSP, and the three-time BJP MLA. What more do I want?
I want only respect.
BJP workers say that Ajai Rai is not fighting alone, but the entire opposition to the BJP, including SP and BSP, is tacitly backing you.
So they do admit that I am a strong contender. I am grateful.
But is it true?
How can you say that? SP and BSP have put up their own candidates. So where is the question of them supporting me? BJP has tied up with Apna Dal not me. If they believe there is a wave, why do they need such a tie-up?
When Atalji [Atal Bihari Vajpayee] was prime minister, BJP had won all the constituencies around here. Today, they are not winning a single one of them. I can say about the neighbouring 10 seats; in many of them they are fighting for the third and fourth positions.
So by what margin do you expect to win?
I can’t say that now. You call me in 10 days and I will tell you.
But are you confident of winning?
100 percent. There is no doubt in that. People believe that I am their own… of their family.
Narendra Modi is fighting elections on a development and good governance plank, on the Gujarat model of development…
He just keeps saying badia, badia [good, good.] Gujarat was already a developed state. Modiji did not develop anything. It is just marketing. He is a master of marketing. We have done real work. Go and see the Pindra [Rai’s constituency] model.
So what is the Pindra model?
Development! And cooperation of castes. People of all castes are with me. We will follow the same model for Banaras.
Will you benefit from Mukhtar Ansari withdrawing from the contest?
I think the BJP has lost their biggest propaganda weapon to polarise votes because of his withdrawal. And because they will not be able to do the negative propaganda, the hard working person who is from Banaras will certainly benefit.
Had you asked Ansari for support? There were news reports that you had called for support.
How can I?
That is what I was also thinking but reports said that you had called his aide.
That is all… I can call anyone. I can talk to anyone. I can ask after their health and well being. What’s wrong with that. And how can I decide whom to take support from? The party has to decide.
So is the party talking to Ansari?
That I have no idea.
What do you think of Arvind Kejriwal?
What can I say? He is the kind of person about whom people used to think well some time ago.
Do you agree with Kejriwal’s vision of politics? On what kind of politics the country should have?
How can I agree? Did he do what he said in Delhi? He may say that he did not get a clear mandate but whatever mandate he got, did he put up a good fight? He ran away from Delhi.
He should have fought first in Delhi and then if he had gone outside, people would accept. He broke their trust.
But wouldn’t he get some votes?
No. His position is going to be very bad.
If Narendra Modi wins, Varanasi will have likely elected a prime minister. What will they get if they elect you?