Ajay Rai, a five-time Congress lawmaker, is once again the party's pick in Uttar Pradesh's Varanasi, the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the 2014 election, he polled 75,000 votes, a fraction of PM Modi's 5.8 lakh. As the Congress named him, it was confirmation that there would be no PM Modi versus Priyanka Gandhi Vadra clash in Varanasi.
"This is my birthplace. Whether I win or lose, I will remain here," Ajay Rai was quoted as telling the media, underscoring that he is a "local" as opposed to "outsiders" in the contest.
Ajay Rai is a former member of the BJP's student wing and won three times as the party's candidate in state elections. In 1996, he emerged as a "giant-killer" after defeating a nine-time legislator from the Kolasla seat.
When he was denied the chance to contest as a BJP candidate from Varanasi in 2009, he quit and joined the Samajwadi Party. He contested against the BJP's Murli Manohar Joshi. Then too, he was third.
In 2015, Ajay Rai was arrested for his alleged role in clashes in Varanasi over a ban on the immersion of Ganesha idols in the Ganga river. He was released seven months later on bail.
In 2017, he lost Uttar Pradesh state elections from Pindra as a Congress candidate.
The Congress hopes Ajay Rai, a Bhumihar, can at least make a dent in PM Modi's votes. The Bhumihar caste enjoys significant influence in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Before the party made it official, there was a strong buzz that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra would be the Congress candidate against PM Modi in Varanasi.