As the 70-odd Assembly constituencies in the sugar heartland of western Maharashtra go to polls on October 21 under the shadow of heavy rains, the beleaguered Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) coalition faces a daunting challenge of defending their traditional bastions under siege from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance.The siege has intensified after the Lok Sabha polls in May this year, with the BJP-Sena’s massive mandate triggering exodus of several NCP, Congress stalwarts to the saffron alliance. Yet, despite talks of a supposedly ‘one-sided fight’, it remains to be seen whether the BJP’s extravagant and high-decibel campaign spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, which harped on the scrapping of Article 370, can win the day for the ruling party in the sugar belt.While Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah targeted Mr. Pawar and questioned the Opposition’s patriotism, the 78-year-old NCP chief riposted that the BJP allegedly shied away from speaking on critical issues like the economic slowdown and soaring unemployment figures. To counter the NCP’s image of a floundering party, the indefatigable Mr. Pawar carried out a spirited poll campaign which culminated in him defiantly addressing an election event in Satara in heavy downpour.While his never-say-die attitude may have secured admiration, it remains to be seen how this translates into votes for the NCP.To supplant the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra’s sugar belt and increase the BJP’s clout, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s strategy prior to the Lok Sabha elections had been to bail out former NCP–Congress leaders whose sugar factories are in economic doldrums.This stratagem, coupled with exploiting internecine quarrels within the Congress and NCP camps, has yielded handsome dividends for the BJP. In Ahmednagar, the saffron party had a windfall before the Lok Sabha polls after first Sujay Vikhe-Patil, and later his father, senior Congressman Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, joined the BJP.The senior Vikhe-Patil, who is contesting from the Shirdi Assembly seat has thrown in his weight to ensure that all 12 seats in the district are won by the BJP.But the fight to watch out for in Ahmednagar — and indeed the State — is the one between youthful Rohit Pawar, the grand-nephew of the NCP chief, who takes on BJP Minister and sitting MLA Ram Shinde in the high-stakes Karjat-Jamkhed Assembly segment.In the doddering Congress bastion of Solapur, Praniti Shinde, daughter of former Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, faces formidable opposition from candidates of the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the Solapur City Central seat.Once their stronghold, the Shindes’s hold has been seriously undercut with Dalit and Muslim voters gravitating towards the VBA and the AIMIM in recent times.Another prestige battle is the Satara Lok Sabha by-election, which takes place simultaneously.Here, former NCP MP from Satara, Udayanraje Bhosale, is contesting the bypoll as the BJP’s candidate after his defection to the saffron party. He takes on ex-Sikkim Governor Shriniwas Patil, the NCP’s candidate and a close aide of Mr. Pawar.Known for his antics than serious work, Mr. Bhosale’s acquisition is nevertheless of great symbolic value to the BJP owing to him being a direct descendant of Maratha warrior King Shivaji. The BJP’s acquisition of yet another royal, sitting MLA Shivendraraje Bhosale – Udayanraje’s fractious cousin and former rival – has turned the tables on the NCP for the Satara Assembly seat, while threatening Mr. Pawar’s hold over Satara.The most crucial Assembly battle in Satara is unquestionably that of Karad South, where former chief minister and senior Congressman Prithviraj Chavan takes on the BJP’s Atul Bhosale along with his old Congress nemesis, Vilas ‘Kaka’ Undalkar, who has propped up his son as an Independent.In 2014, Mr. Chavan had managed to win a hard-fought battle against the very same opponents.In the Kolhapur South Assembly segment, a closely-fought battle is on the cards between the youthful Ruturaj Patil, the nephew of Congress leader, Satej ‘Bunty’ Patil, who is challenging the sitting BJP legislator Amal Mahadik.The Kolhapur electoral battle is yet another chapter in the long-running feud between Satej Patil and his nemeis — ex-NCP MP Dhananjay Mahadik — another recent BJP entrant who is Amal Mahadik’s cousin.The young Ruturaj Patil is being openly supported by Sanjay Mandalik, the newly-lected Shiv Sena MP of Kolhapur, also an avowed adversary of the powerful Mahadik clan and especially Dhananjay Mahadik.In Pune, the BJP, which at present holds 12 of the district’s 21 Assembly seats, has acquired a major ally in the form of ex-Congressman Harshavardhan Patil, who went over after a bitter fallout with the NCP over a ticket on the Indapur seat.Mr. Patil, determined to regain his lost citadel of Indapur (part of the Baramati Lok Sabha constituency), is up against sitting NCP MLA Dattatreya Bharne. Mr. Patil’s win would expand the BJP’s footprint in Baramati and increase the worries of the Pawar clan.The two most eagerly fought contest in Pune are arguably Kothrud, where BJP State chief Chandrakant Patil is stepping into the Assembly arena for the first time, and Baramati, where senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar is seeking re-election for the seventh straight time.Mr. Patil, who initially faced the hostility of local Brahmin outfits, dissension within party ranks and the ire of citizens for being an ‘outsider’ from Kolhapur, faces the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s Kishore Shinde, who is being covertly backed by the NCP.In Baramati, Mr. Pawar is up against influential Dhangar leader Gopichand Padalkar, whom the BJP ‘imported’ from Sangli with an eye on the formidable Dhangar votes in Baramati. While the Congress’s virtually leaderless and incoherent campaign has hit its candidates hard, it hopes to offset the ‘leadership crisis’ by having fielded experienced campaigners like Arvind Shinde (from the Kasba Peth Assembly segment) and Ramesh Bagwe (from the Pune Cantonment seat) who have a sound understanding of Pune’s civic woes.However, in the urban pockets of Pune, a strong current of discord is evident with citizens fed-up of ruling party MLAs as well as opposition party leaders for having failed to resolve problems of potable water and poor infrastructure despite tall claims over several years.In several places in the Chinchwad Assembly segment, citizens have decided not to cast their votes until their drinking water problems have been sorted out.A similar situation prevails in Hadapsar, where scores of residents from housing societies have barred the sitting BJP MLA Yogesh Tilekar for entering their areas to seek votes.“In some societies in Kondhwa (part of the Hadapsar segment), residents have been forced to seek recourse to tankers for the past 15 years despite dams overflowing with water. Today, the ‘NOTA mentality’ reigns supreme among them as they are bitterly opposed to both the BJP’s Yogesh Tilekar and the NCP’s candidate, Chetan Tupe,” says Advocate Tosif Shaikh, who is himself contesting the Hadapsar seat as an Independent.