3 brothers, 5 seats, jail: no getting away from the Ansaris of Poorvanchal

Afzal Ansari (right) at their haveli. Afzal Ansari (right) at their haveli.

Around 10 pm, a visibly bewildered Dalit man enters a palatial haveli in Mohammadabad town of Ballia district. His 8-year-old daughter was raped, he says, but the police have refused to file a complaint. Seated on a sofa, Sibakatullah Ansari dials some numbers, talks to policemen seeking immediate action, ensures medical treatment for the girl, and hands out Rs 500 to the man. “Jaa, kuchh kha lena. Fikra na kar (Go, eat something. Don’t worry).”

Impressively tall, the 65-year-old Sibakatullah is the elder brother of Mukhtar Ansari, the jailed murder accused who has given the Congress an inkling of a hope in Varanasi with his support.

However, the Ansaris’ writ runs larger. Known as the mafia dons of Poorvanchal, the three brothers run a parallel empire on a mix of politics, muscle power and religious fervour, a green gamchha their identification mark. Mohammadabad and their 150-year-old, 35-room haveli there is the Ansaris’ fiefdom. The house and the row of SUVs parked in its long courtyard stand out in the locality of tiny lanes and old shops.

As the remaining Uttar Pradesh seats vote on Monday, the influence of the brothers counts in four adjoining constituencies. While Mukhtar is contesting from Ghosi, Afzal, the middle brother, is standing from Ballia. Besides, the brothers are supporting fellow notorious don, though of western UP, D P Yadav, who is contesting as a Rashtriya Parivartan Dal candidate from Ghazipur. Om Prakash Rajbhar of the lesser-known Bharatiya Samaj Party has their support in Salempur.

The Ansaris have also put bitter rivalry aside to back Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate, in Varanasi.

Mukhtar had contested from Varanasi in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections on a BSP ticket, and despite being in jail, lost by only a slim margin of 17,000 votes to BJP stalwart Murli Manohar Joshi. In 2012, still in prison, he pulled off a victory from the Mau Assembly seat of Uttar Pradesh. Afzal too has seen prison days, while tasting success as a Samajwadi Party MP and MLA. Sibakatullah is an MLA from Mohammadabad.

In fact, the brothers, known to not worry too much about political affiliations, formed own Quami Ekta Dal (QED) only in 2010 after all parties finally shut doors on them due to their involvement in crime. Mukhtar was earlier kept in Ghazipur jail but later shifted to Agra as news trickled out about the luxurious life he led inside.

Incidentally, the Ansaris have an illustrious lineage. While India’s Vice-President Hamid Ansari is related to them, grandfather Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari was a noted freedom fighter and a renowned doctor and studied surgery in Britain. Close to Mahatma Gandhi, he rose to become president of the Indian National Congress. The Ansari living room is full of old photographs of M A Ansari with noted freedom fighters.

The SP government practically ensured that Mukhtar didn’t get to campaign in his seat Ghosi this time. He had filed a petition for parole, requesting the court to allow him to campaign up to May 10, the day canvassing ended. The court issued orders in May first week but, citing some technicalities, the government did not release him. Afzal says the court then issued a contempt notice against the jailor, police superintendent and the UP principal secretary. The brothers also approached the Delhi High Court.

Mukhtar was finally released from Agra jail on May 10 morning. As he moved towards Ghosi escorted by a police team, the QED promptly announced a rally by him in the constituency. However, he couldn’t make it to the seat till 5 pm, when the campaign deadline ended.

“The police did not bring him here, instead lodging him midway in Lucknow jail saying it had got too late,” Afzal says. “It’s contempt of court.”

Afzal is clear about the SP’s “nervousness”. “Mukhtar’s campaigning would have affected SP candidates. The Chief Minister’s father is contesting from neighbouring Azamgarh, his prospects would have been affected too.”

However, this election has seen the Ansaris’ influence waning, with Muslims except those in Mohmmadabad questioning their call to them to vote to defeat communal forces. In Lalganj area of Azamgarh, from where several youths have been picked up for alleged links with the Indian Mujahideen, the Ansaris had distributed a letter by Mukhtar. A Muslim youth, who runs a CBSE school in the area, scoffs at the brothers. “They live in a dream world, do not realise that few listen to such calls here now,” he says.

However, while they do not seem to be in a winning position in any seat, the Ansaris should still clinch substantial votes in each. And since they are likely to take away SP and BSP votes, they would effectively benefit the BJP, the saffron camp notes gleefully.

Afzal admits they cannot bank on Muslim votes, which remain divided among various parties. However, he insists, there is no Modi wave in Poorvanchal.

“The BJP can win only when the votes of backward and upper castes unite. It was seen during the Ram Mandir wave, but not now.”