With mafia don Mukhtar Ansari throwing his hat in the electoral ring in Varanasi, the battle of hustings in the holy city is set to get even more interesting. Already, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal has declared his candidature against the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi from Varanasi.
Among the major parties, only the Congress is yet to name its nominee from this high-profile seat. Sources say rebel AAP MLA from Delhi Vinod Kumar Binny could also contest from Varanasi.
Mukhtar Ansari currently is MLA from Mau assembly constituency in Ghazipur district of east UP. He was won this seat four times.
Mukhtar Ansari, who faces four murder charges and has been in various jails for the past eight years, was in Varanasi for a court case hearing when he made the announcement to the media. Asked if he would be able to challenge Modi, he said: "Wo to janta batayegi aur janta mere saath hai." (The people will decide that and the people are with me.) Ansari, who heads his own political outfit called the Qaumi Ekta Dal (QED) would also be contesting the neighbouring Ghosi Lok Sabha seat.
The mafia don may be an independent candidate but he could upset the calculations of all the major parties as he commands a huge following among the decisive 2.5 lakh Muslim electorate in Varanasi. He had given a tough time to top BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi in the 2009 election and lost only by a slim margin of about 17,000 votes.
Interestingly, all major contenders in this holy city – Modi, Kejriwal and Ansari – are "outsiders" and locals say this is bound to become a major issue in the election this time around.
"If the Congress gives the ticket to local leader Ajay Rai, he will win hands down because the people here know that neither Modi nor Kejriwal or Ansari are committed to Varanasi in the manner a local leader would be," says senior Varanasi-based journalist Rajesh Gupta.
The temple town has been a BJP stronghold over the past five Lok Sabha elections since 1996, losing the seat only once to the Congress in 2004. Besides, the BJP holds three of the five assembly constituencies that fall in the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat. The SP and Apna Dal have one each.
Mukhtar Ansari's historysheet
Total criminal cases: 15
Attempt to murder: 04
Criminal conspiracy: 05
Conspiracy to murder rival mafia don Brijesh Singh -- 2001
Murder of BJP MLA Krishnanand Rai -- 2005