'When Priyankaji's candidature wasn't announced, where is the question of her backing out? Sawal hi nahin hai.'
It was pitched as a David versus Goliath battle -- Priyanka Gandhi Vadra vs Narendra Damodardas Modi -- in Varanasi.
The inference was drawn from a seemingly casual, off the cuff, remark by Congress President Rahul Gandhi and his sister when asked who would take on the PM in 2019.
Then quite suddenly, just when the Congress rank and file were headed to Varanasi to begin battle preparations, and two hours before Modi's grand roadshow in the temple city, the party announced that it was repeating its 2014 candidate, Ajay Rai.
Modi defeated Rai by over 337,000 votes in 2014 and his repeat candidature is being seen as a Congress walkover handed to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Speaking to Swarupa Dutt/Rediff.com over the phone between meetings in Varanasi, Rai says India has changed in 2019 and people are disappointed in Modi's failure to deliver.
"Priyankaji is not contesting, I am, and the BJP will get a befitting reply," he says.
Were you expecting that you would be asked to contest from Varanasi again?
Well, yes. Mujhe bataya gaya ki aapko chunav ladhna hai. I was told I would be fighting the election.
The media told me. I got to know from the media.
The party did not inform you or even consult you?
How will the party tell me? They have to announce it first, right? Mediawale ne mujhe bataya (The media told me).
You are a dummy candidate, then?
Not at all. The party wants me to be its Varanasi candidate and as a loyal worker, I will obey the party's command. I contested the last time too and people have given me their love.
So, tell us, whose decision was it to back out from contesting from Varanasi -- Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's or Rahul Gandhi's?
Neither. They were just rumours. The media had spread rumours everywhere that Priyankaji would be contesting from Varanasi. She herself has never said it. Aisa kuch bhi nahin tha.
When Priyankaji's candidature wasn't announced, where is the question of her backing out? Sawal hi nahin hai.
If her name had been announced and she does not contest, only then can you say she backed out. I am telling you again, the Congress never put up her name.
In an interview with The Hindu newspaper, when asked whether Priyanka would be the Congress candidate from Varanasi, Rahul Gandhi had said, 'I will leave you in suspense. I am not denying or confirming anything.'
Priyanka also said she would be happy to contest if the Congress president asked her to. So this is one time you can't blame the media.
But Priyankaji was simply responding to a question by the media. It is the media which drew inferences from her comment.
But still, it's a PR disaster for the Congress.
No, no! Nothing like that. We know Priyankaji has been working on the ground, on this soil, for many years now. So whether she contests or not in Varanasi, the goodwill of the people for the Congress is there. Nobody can take that away.
As a ground-level worker, I too have been working for the party for the last five years.
It's a BJP government in UP. What work can you do?
I have been doing the work of an Opposition leader, which listens to people's grievances and brings it before the government.
Have Congress workers in Varanasi lost their will to fight the election? Do you think defeat is inevitable?
Have our leaders lost the will to fight the election? No! So how can Congress workers lose the will to fight?
Mera manobal hai toh Priyankaji ka manobal kaise gir jayega? (If I am confident, then how can Priyanka not be?)
And what defeat are you talking about? Nobody has accepted defeat. Let us wait for the results and then talk.
In 2014, you had said 'Benaras mein har har Modi nahi, har har Mahadev bola jata hai'. But Modi won by 337,000 votes. Will it be a repeat this time?
In 2014, the atmosphere was different, now it is different.
What is different between 2014 and 2019?
In 2014, Modi won the election on the basis of the Gujarat model and on the belief that he would change the lives of the people for the better.
Remember all those promises he made? But what happened? He did not deliver.
Hua kuch nahin Benaras mein. Nothing has changed in Varanasi. So people have lost faith in him.
That's the biggest change in 2019. The road show he held (on April 25) before he filed his nomination papers (on April 26) was nothing but event management.
You have to come and see for yourself, otherwise you will think I am making it up, but the fact is people here are very disappointed with the government.
In the name of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor, they have broken down temples and hurt people's religious beliefs.
Yes, some of the ghats have been cleaned, but the toilets at the ghats are filthy.
In the last five years, there has not been a single industry in the city. Not one.
How will people find employment? Those who want to set up industry are being harassed for getting NOCs in place. And don't even ask about GST and demonetisation!
But there were thousands of people during the Modi road show.
They were outsiders. It's event management so they were brought in from Gujarat, Bihar, Rajasthan... Just 15 to 20 per cent of the people were from Varanasi, the rest were all from outside.
Do you really believe people will vote for you?
That can be answered only on May 23. But people are extremely disappointed with the BJP government.
Will that disappointment translate into votes for you?
Yes, why not?
See, the last time people were excited that Modi was a candidate from Varanasi because they expected the Gujarat model to be replicated here.
Jobs, new avenues of employment, a cleaner city, business would prosper. Notebandi ke baad business toh baith gayi (business has flattened out after demonetisation).
People have lost faith in Modi. We are still waiting for the 2 crore jobs Modi had promised. There are job losses in every single sector.
What are the top five problems in Varanasi?
Unemployment, lack of drinking water, the sewerage system has collapsed, a premier institution like Banaras Hindu University is dying, and traffic jams. The city is dying.
And finally, if Priyanka had contested the election from Varanasi, would she have won?
There is a difference between ifs and buts and reality. It is a hypothetical situation.
She is not contesting, I am, and the BJP will get a befitting reply.