Mukhtar Ansari has opted out of the Varanasi poll ring but the don-turned-politician may still play 'a decisive role' in trying to stall BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
Ansari, who has a strong following among 300,000 Muslim voters in Varanasi, is currently lodged in the Agra central jail on charges of murdering a BJP legislator.
His party Quami Ekta Dal's national vice-president Ather Jamal Lari told Hindustan Times on Monday: "Ansari has applied for parole and if he comes out, he will campaign extensively against Modi and make sure the sacrifice we have made doesn't go in vain."
Congress' Ajay Rai or AAP's Arvind Kejriwal may benefit. "We're keenly watching their campaign, and would decide on one of them shortly," said Lari.
"Ansari's role in Varanasi actually begins now. If granted parole, he would ask people to vote for the candidate our party supports," Lari said, adding, "There was no pressure on us [to withdraw]. We didn't want Muslim votes to split. Our aim is to defeat Modi."
QED says Ansari's message "will be taken to voters" even if he is not granted parole. The party has decided against supporting either BSP or SP.
"They don't look to have the potential to challenge Modi," said Lari.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, as BSP nominee Ansari got 1.85 lakh votes, losing to BJP's Murli Manohar Joshi only by about 17,000 votes.
Lari claimed Ansari had the capacity to transfer about 200,000 votes to whoever he supports. This is crucial because out of about 16 lakh votes in Varanasi, Joshi had got about 2 lakh votes and won.
Was there any deal behind Ansari's opting out? "We didn't want a division in secular votes. We wrote to Sonia Gandhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, asking them to either support Ansari or field a common nominee but they didn't agree," said Lari.
QED hints they knew Modi was too big a challenge to take on in the holy city. "There is a difference between throwing a challenge and actually winning. We didn't want to take the gamble," Lari said.
But all Muslims are not likely to follow Ansari if he goes for Kejriwal. Abdul Batin Nomani, Mufti-e-Banaras, a revered figure among Muslims of Kashi, on Monday also met people, trying to build a consensus.
Mushtaq Ansari, one of the leaders of Varanasi's famous weaver community with 60,000-strong vote bank, said, "First we thought of supporting Kejriwal. But many Muslims want a local leader."
With considerable muscle power behind him, Rai is a local and powerful leader of Bhumihar community. In 2009, he contested the Varanasi seat on SP ticket, standing third with 123,000 votes.
Rai may be one of the beneficiaries despite the fact that his elder brother Awdhesh was killed, allegedly by Ansari's men, in August 1991.
Lari claimed Rai had phoned him and sought support, something the latter has denied. "Even AAP wants our support but they cannot say it openly," Lari said.
However, BJP, which has won this seat five times out of six since 1991, seems unfazed. Senior BJP leader Nalin Kohli, who is camping in Varanasi, said, "It is unfortunate that parties are treating voters like a flock of sheep they can herd in any direction. Voters have evolved beyond all this."