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The game of will-she-won’t-she is over. It ended on Thursday when the Congress declared Ajay Rai rather than Priyanka Vadra Gandhi as its Varanasi candidate against Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party for the Lok Sabha polls. For those hopeful of a high-octane clash of star campaigners, it was an anti-climax. After all, a series of hints had been dropped that it was on the cards, mostly by Gandhi herself. Given charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, she had been sharpening her attacks on Modi, whose hold over this temple-town constituency is considered unshakeable. Few thought she could win, but the battle could have drawn one of the world’s largest ever audiences.

What Gandhi’s “retreat", as it seems to be, outlines is that politics is about prosaic calculations of victory more than poetic proclamations of bravado. Arguably, Arvind Kejriwal’s attempt to defeat Modi in Varanasi in 2014 did not end well for his all-India stature as a leader. Yet, staying away from an arena after raising expectations of descending into it for a gladiatorial contest is not good for anyone on the optical front either. Seen this way, it stirs up the question of why Gandhi was seen raring for such a direct contest in the first place. Her no-show thus could possibly cost her the impression generated of her as a politically-savvy leader. Congress chances in India’s most populous state—accounting for 80 Lok Sabha seats—were always slim. But Uttar Pradesh is also where the party must demonstrate that it has the courage, conviction, confidence to revive itself. It also needs all the attention it can get. It seems to have blown a chance in Varanasi.

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