Hoardings invoking the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and the idea of a 'Hindu Rashtra' are the first thing that catch the eye as you enter Dhule city, located on the banks of Panzara river in north Maharashtra.
Four days ahead of the polls in the communally-sensitive Dhule district, ongoing construction of a 22-inch Shiva idol along the riverbank is also a talking point among locals. Later, at an Opposition rally in Ashiyana Colony, a minority-dominated pocket in the heart of the city, Muslim leaders and intellectuals refer to the contest as a fight between the "RSS ideology and the Shariat".
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In the final leg of campaigning in Dhule, where Union MoS (Defence) Subhash Bhamre is seeking a second consecutive term, political formations, on either side of the spectrum, are pushing religion to the fore.
The reason: The region's political demography. While the constituency has 4.12 lakh Muslim voters - making up for 20 per cent of all voters - the BJP has been continuously winning this seat since 1996. A consolidation among upper caste Hindu votes has seen it win the seat six times on a trot. In 2014, Bhamre had trounced Congress' Amrish Patel by over 1.30 lakh votes. But BJP insiders admit that the contest this time is tough.
To dent the BJP's voter base among the dominant Maratha community, the Congress has fielded its sitting MLA Kunal Patil, the son of former Maharashtra minister Rohidas Patil. Additionally, the presence of BJP rebel MLA Anil Gote, former IPS officer Dr Sanjay Aparanti (BSP candidate) and Malegaon corporator Nabi Ahmed Ahmadullah (Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi nominee) has made the contest even more interesting.
However, at Malegaon's Bhiku Chowk - where a bomb explosion had killed six persons and injured over 100 on September 29, 2008 - the most dominant topics are BJP's decision to field blast accused Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and the credibility of EVMs. While Malegaon is in Nashik district, it falls under Dhule Lok Sabha constituency.
Thakur's recent remarks against the case's lead investigation officer - former Maharashtra ATS chief Hemant Karkare - evoke the sharpest responses. Last week, Thakur had said that Karkare, who was martyred while fighting terrorists in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, was killed after she cursed him.
"She is still an accused. How insensitive it is of the BJP to nominate her," says Abdul Basit (42), a powerloom worker. Jaleel Ahmed, 52, adds, "This is so blatant. They are playing with sentiments of the minorities." The two, along with several others, are discussing the election over chai at a nukkad.
At another chowk, 10 minutes away, another group in engaged in poll talk.
Social worker Sayyed Asif Ali points out that the locals have renamed a chowk next to the blast site after Karkare. "We hold a programme every year to pay respect on his death anniversary. The BJP's ploy is to communalise the election."
But lawyers Abdul Azim Khan and Irfana Hamdani, who have fought the case for blast victims, admit that they are wary of "reverse polarisation".
Meanwhile, at Hanuman Tekdi, a Hindu-dominated belt, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's national security pitch resonates much more with locals.
Chandu Chavan, an Army jawan from Dhule's Bohrivir village, who was in Pakistan's captivity for four months, figures repeatedly in discussions. In his rallies, Bhamre compares his government's response to the Pulwama terror attack to the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. "We're seeking votes on Modiji's name, the BJP's name, and the work we did," he claims, denying attempts at polarisation.
Gote, his rival, however, has accused Bhamre of "using Chandu Chavan for canvassing", which the latter has denied.
Congress' Kunal Patil, too, accuses the BJP of failed attempts at polarisation. Incidentally, Congress' Malegaon MLA, Asif Shaikh Rasheed, admits that the poll rhetoric in minority areas is dominated by triple talaq legislation and atrocities against Dalits and Muslims. Shawwal Ansari, a former Dhule deputy mayor, too, also echoes his viewpoint.
Abdul Basit says that the powerloom sector in the belt, once a leading industry, was struggling, owing to government's bad policies, heightened input costs and low yields. Umesh Wagh, a resident of Baglan village, complains of the perennial water scarcity. While candidates across party lines do speak about these issues, it clearly isn't the dominant narrative.
Nasir Ahmed (59), who had lost his son in the 2008 blast, has moved court against Thakur's candidature. He accuses the "BJP of rubbing salt on the wounds". Dr Akhalaque Ansari, who helps blast survivors, accuses the BJP of resorting to gimmicks.
Of the six Assembly segments in Dhule, the Congress and NCP control three. While the BJP has two and Sena has one, Gote is the legislator from Dhule (city).
While the BJP's strategy is to maximise voting in Hindu-dominated belts and restrict the damage in minority segments, Congress is banking on caste-based polarisation of Hindu votes, and a consolidation among the minority votes.