In Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, temperatures often soar above 47 degrees Celsius during April and May. Although recent days have been cloudy, the area’s political climate in the coal belt is becoming increasingly heated as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress are locked in a fierce battle in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls on April 19.

The area in Vidarbha region has traditionally seen a head-to-head electoral fight between the two national parties. In the 2019 election, the grand old party managed to clinch the seat from the BJP, which had held it since 2004 with Suresh ‘Balu’ Dhanorkar emerging victorious over three-time MP Hansraj Gangaram Ahir.

Given this backdrop, the upcoming election is highly significant for both parties as it was the lone seat that the Congress captured in the western State in the last election, a defeat that resonated deeply with the BJP. In view of this, the saffron party has nominated six-time MLA and State Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, a member of a micro-minority Vaishya community, for the Lok Sabha seat.

Conversely, the Congress has chosen Ms. Dhanorkar, the widow of late Dhanorkar following his sudden demise last year. She is also serving as a Congress MLA from Warora in the district and comes from the influential Kunbi community.

Weighing up

Mr. Mungantiwar is relying heavily on his personal connections, developmental work, the inauguration of the Ram Temple and the ‘Modi’ factor to secure victory, while Ms. Dhanorkar aims to garner sympathy votes alongside the combined vote bank of the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition amid ‘lack of support’ from Congress leader Vijay Wadettiwar, a key politician in the region who wanted his daughter Shivani Wadettiwar for the ticket, but saw the party opting for his rival, Ms. Dhanorkar instead.

The Lok Sabha constituency comprises six Vidhan Sabha segments — Rajura, Chandrapur, Ballarpur, Warora, Wani, and Arni. Mr. Wadettiwar has significant influence over four of these, with the exceptions being Ballarpur, represented by Mr. Mungantiwar, and Ms. Dhanorkar’s Warora, and his lack of support has been noticeable among the party cadre.

“Factors such as ‘pro-incumbency’ and the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will work in my favour, and the election here is a choice between gundaraj (hooliganism) and development rather than being influenced by caste or religion. It’s not at all a tough fight, people know my nature and I know them. I don’t have a criminal background…,” Mr. Mungantiwar told The Hindu during his campaign trail in Warora taluka.

In urban centres, the persona of the BJP candidate is dominating Ms. Dhanorkar’s ‘widow factor’. “We don’t see Sudhir bhau as a BJP candidate, but a man who brought developmental works and name to this district as guardian minister. He had put Tadoba [tiger reserve] on the world map, which is providing employment direct and indirect employment to thousands from various sections of society,” said Subhash Rao, a private employee from the town, also known as the ‘City of Black Gold’ as it has more than 30 active coal mines.

Apart from several industries, including cement factories, Chandrapur houses the country’s largest power station with a capacity of 2,340 MW, which accounts for 25% of the State’s power needs and Ballarpur Industries (BILT), India’s largest paper manufacturer. It is one of the most polluted cities in Maharashtra and as well as in the country.

Namdev (name changed), a vendor selling the popular ‘tarri poha’ breakfast from a makeshift cart near the Congress election office at Gandhi Chowk, is far less articulate. He quietly expresses his backing for the BJP, citing his scepticism about Congress’ chances of coming to power at the Centre.

“What’s the point in voting for Congress when the BJP is sure of winning 400 seats? If Sudhir bhau wins, it’ll lead to more development. Although I support Congress, I would’ve thought about voting for them if they had chosen a different candidate,” he says softly.

Last year, huge consignments of teakwood logs sourced from the thick forests of Chandrapur and Gadchiroli were dispatched to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh for use in the Ram temple, including its main doors. The same wood, also known as Central province teakwood, was used for the Central Vista in New Delhi and other government projects in Maharashtra, and across the country. It is not just Mr. Mungantiwar, even the Prime Minister referred to this wood during his first poll rally in Maharashtra at Chandrapur on Monday, which seems to have quietly resonated among Hindu voters in the constituency.

View in rural areas

In contrast to the predominant discussions among urban voters revolving around Ram Temple, Mr. Modi, and Hindutva, rural counterparts are more concerned about the impacts of GST, the arrests of Opposition leaders by Central probe agencies like the Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation, unemployment and inflation.

“Why only Opposition leaders are being targeted? We have not come across a single news which says BJP leaders were arrested for corruption or any violation of rules. There’s a huge impact of GST on farmers. Prices of fertilisers and seeds are skyrocketing, but the government is not announcing any MSP (Minimum Support Price),” says Dilip Ghadve, a farmer from Asala village in Warora Assembly segment.

Sitting on a round concrete platform beneath a roadside tree, he claims that the BJP is ‘noisy’, and expresses his disillusionment with politics, claiming that leaders only pay attention to villagers during elections. “Our validity is only for one month. For the next five years and 11 months, the leaders don’t even care to meet or think about our welfare,” he said, clarifying that he was not complaining and his life does not depend on any welfare scheme.

Giving vent to his concerns, Tushar, a recent graduate, said the most challenging ‘job’ after completing the degree is to find a job, expressing disappointment with the government’s failure to generate employment opportunities.

The constituency, due to its industrial and coal belt, is home to a large population of Telugu speakers who migrated from neighbouring Telangana for employment. It also has a significant number of Bengali-speaking voters.

Political observer Hemanth Desai described Chandrapur as a battleground to watch in the first phase of elections, citing the unpredictability of voter sentiment, especially after a Congress candidate defeated a three-time BJP MP in the 2019 polls. “It’s a tough ground,” he said.

He said that Mr. Mungantiwar is seen as a close confidant of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari and someone who is accused of playing a key role in the defeat of his party’s candidate Mr. Ahir. “Like many constituencies, Prime Minister Modi is the most popular face in Chandrapur, but not the party’s candidate. Sympathy might favour Ms. Dhanorkar,” he said, adding that Mr. Modi was addressing rallies only in the seats where the party was in trouble, and his first rally was in Chandrapur.