The Sakoli Assembly seat in Maharashtra’s Bhandara district came into the poll limelight immediately after the BJP gave the ticket to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ longtime friend Parinay Fuke and the Congress fielded Nana Patole, a one-time BJP MP.

Patole, who resigned as BJP Bhandara-Gondiya MP in December 2017, had lambasted the Narendra Modi government at the time for “ignoring” farmers, has been fielded in place of Sevak Waghaye by the Congress.

Fuke, a native of Nagpur, has replaced sitting BJP MLA Rajesh Kashivar, and party insiders said the nomination was less to with Kashivar’s “winnability” and more to launch the CM’s friend from a seat generally considered safe for the ruling party.

Fuke is currently a Member of the Legislative Council from the Local Area Constituency of Bhandara-Gondia districts since 2016 and was inducted into the Fadnavis government as minister of state for PWD and forests post-Lok Sabha polls this year.

“Fuke worked as PA to Fadnavis when the latter was made state unit president in April 2013. He is seen as an outsider but his leverage with the CM has allowed Fuke to establish a network among party workers here,” said an observer.

Fuke’s work in snatching away Bhandara-Gondiya Lok Sabha seat from NCP in the 2019 polls had paid off and local leaders believe he will operate from Bhandara if he wins, the observer added.

“Patole is a local candidate and has good rapport with the public. He has good relations with the rich and influential people here and is seen to be an accommodative person,” the observer said.

NCP leader Praful Patel, after winning the Bhandara- Gondiya LS seat in 2004, had promised to set up a BHEL plant here, and Fuke is telling locals that the project, still on paper, will be cancelled and a cluster of small and medium scale enterprises will come up in its place.

An unperturbed Patole said, “I have been representing these areas for several years and I know these people and their issues very closely.”

Fuke, however, claimed, “I have brought works worth Rs 300 crore to Sakoli and neighbouring areas. I want it to have all the amenities of any major metro city.”

While Patole and Fuke expressed confidence they would win, resentment among segments of people upset with denial of tickets to some may hit the prospects of both candidates.

Congress’ Waghaye, who lost in the 2009 and 2014 polls, has rebelled and joined the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, leading to Patole insinuating that Fuke has some understanding with Waghaye.

Patole has also claimed that the administration was displaying bias against non-BJP functionaries, pointing out that Chhattisgarh’s Congress CM Bhupesh Baghel’s helicopter did not get permission to land for a rally.

“Our function was planned after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Sakoli rally. If the PM can use a helicopter, why not CM Baghel? This is clear misuse of state machinery,” Patole alleged.

For Fuke, the ire of the Teli community, reportedly feeling slighted over denial of BJP ticket to Charan Waghmare in neighbouring Tumsar Assembly seat, may spill over.

Several Teli leaders believe Fuke had some role to play in Waghmare being denied a ticket.

Waghmare, an influential Tel leader, is now contesting as an Independent against BJP’s Pradeep Badole in Tumsar.

An observer said the Teli community has a sizable presence in Sakoli and in order to placate them, Fuke had to invite prominent community leader-educationist Brahmanand Karanjekar to campaign.

Fuke, downplaying the Teli community issue, said Karanjekar was an old friend and the latter’s campaign should not be seen in any other context.

BJP leaders said Waghmare was denied a ticket because his allegations about a fake repair and maintenance scam as well as irregularities in rodent killing in the MLA complex in Mumbai had upset the party.

The Kunbi community is also strong in Sakoli and both Fuke and Patole belong to different sub-castes, with observers saying the Teli community may hold the key to who wins on October 24.

The Assembly polls are scheduled for October 21.