Actor-turned-politician Raj Babbar will lead the Congress as state unit president in the slog overs ahead of crucial assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh to be held early next year.
Mr Babbar, 64, is a Congress spokesperson and represents Uttarakhand in the Rajya Sabha. He was once a member of the Samajwadi Party and joined the Congress some years ago, famously defeating Dimple Yadav, the wife of UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, in a by-election in 2009, to win a Lok Sabha seat from the state.
Ghulam Nabi Azad, senior Congress leader in charge of UP, announced Mr Babbar’s appointment rejecting suggestions that he is an “outsider.”
“Raj Babbar was born in UP and has been a member of Parliament from UP in both houses,” Mr Azad pointed out, also naming three vice presidents in UP including controversial politician Imran Masood, who was jailed in 2014 for a hate speech against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He said the party would announce its candidate for chief minister only once the campaign for UP begins and also refused to talk about a lead role in it for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, daughter of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, amid speculation over her hour-long meeting with Mr Azad at his residence this afternoon.
Raj Babbar’s caste – he belongs to the Sonar community listed as an Other Backward Caste or OBC in UP – is said to be a key factor in his selection today as the Congress focuses on winning back its original constituency of Muslims, Brahmins and a slice of non-Dalit Other Backward Castes. Party sources say after Mr Babbar’s appointment, the Congress’ is expected to pick a Brahmin as its chief ministerial candidate.
Mr Babbar is also seen to have a clean image, with no significant controversies attached to him, and is a vigorous campaigner. He is said to have carried forward goodwill and support from his years with the Samajwadi Party, which had expelled him in 2006 for “indiscipline.”
The Uttar Pradesh election is a high-stakes contest with parties looking at the result as a key indicator of how they could fare in the 2019 national elections.
For the Congress that means lifting itself out of the bottom of a table of parties. It currently holds only 30 of UP’s 404 assembly seats and two seats in Parliament.