In 2019, Will Naveen Patnaik Be Able to Stop the BJP in Odisha?

An ex-ally, the chief minister is no stranger to BJP's methods but has a tough task at hand with public perception building up against 'tainted' BJD legislators and MPs, and a high-voltage campaign against his party and government.

Bhubaneswar: After suffering a jolt in the Karnataka assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is preparing to intensify its focus on Odisha, which is set to emerge as yet another critical electoral battleground between the BJP and the state’s ruling party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Since 2014, a key aspect of the BJP’s electoral strategy has been to expand its footprint in West Bengal and Odisha in the East, ruled by regional leaders, Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik, respectively.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen Cuttack as the venue of his rally this Saturday to mark the completion of four years of the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre, as also to sound the poll bugle by projecting the central government’s achievements before the people of Odisha.

Over the last couple of years, the battle lines between the BJD and BJP have grown sharper. The BJP leadership has given Modi and party president Amit Shah’s poster boy, Union petroleum, natural gas and skill development minister Dharmendra Pradhan, a free rein to chalk out a plan of action to boost the party’s prospects in the state. The objective is to pose a serious challenge to chief minister Patnaik and his party.

Patnaik, on his part, is no stranger to BJP’s method of politics, as during 2000-2009, the BJD was in an alliance with the BJP. It is only after the communal violence in Kandhamal that the BJD snapped ties with the BJP. Since then, relations between the two parties have nosedived. Even during the Modi wave in 2014, catapulting the BJP to power at the Centre, the party could win only one seat – the Sundergarh parliamentary seat represented by the veteran tribal leader Jual Oram – in Odisha. The BJP, however, is now going all out to revive and expand its support base in the state. One of the main planks of its campaign is to highlight the Patnaik government’s 18-year tenure of ‘misgovernance’.

The Odisha chief minister, however, is leaving no stone unturned to stop the BJP in its track. Patnaik has launched a three-pronged strategy to meet the political challenge posed by BJP. First, connect with the people and make them realise the significance of all the programmes launched by the BJD government. Second, aggressive poaching of opposition leaders to bring them over to the BJD’s fold. Third, target the Modi-led NDA government at the Centre by putting the dispensation in the dock for neglecting Odisha and its interests. An important part of BJD’s campaign is to emphasise the Modi government’s’ indifference’ to resolving the Mahanadi river water dispute between Chhattisgarh and Odisha and rejecting the state’s genuine demand for ‘Special Category’ status.

The Odisha Assembly building. Credit: Official website

The BJD’s success in the recent Bijepur by-election, where its won by a margin of 42,000 votes against the BJP, followed by two wins in the local body elections of Hindol and Atabira, both traditional BJP bastions, seem to vindicate BJD’s claims of being the number one party in the state ‘with no near rivals’.

Yet, there’s no doubt that since its inception in 1997, the BJD currently seems to be facing its toughest challenge from the combined opposition of Congress and BJP. Ruling uninterruptedly for four terms, the party finds itself on the backfoot with controversies like the chit fund and mining scams, deteriorating law and order situation, the Kunduli rape incident, increasing farmer suicides and continued migration casting a shadow over it.

Consider, for instance, the BJP’s improved performance and revival as the second largest party in last year’s panchayat polls. In fact, the BJP’s aggression has pushed Patnaik to adopt multiple strategies to counter the party’s growing influence. He has started directly connecting with the people through video conferences, visiting sites of new projects, announcing new programmes to boost people’s confidence in his government’s delivery system. Of late, 100 new projects have been sanctioned.

Recently, the chief minister distributed 2,000 land pattas among slum dwellers in Ganjam, his home district. Patnaik has also asked his party leaders to undertake door-to-door visits in villages and towns, constitute booth and ward committees and get feedback from the people about the efficacy of government schemes.

A message has gone out to BJD’s rank and file that the party will this time decide candidates for Parliament and assembly seats on the basis of grassroots feedback, not by lobbying with senior leaders or ministers in Bhubaneswar, as was the case last time. A dedicated team of party insiders and experts is working day and night to select candidates by interacting with people, securing intelligence inputs, measuring winnability and reviewing the performance of legislators. The BJD is focusing on increasing its vote share from last polled 93, 35,000 to 1 crore 10 lakh this time.

At a broader political level, Patnaik has managed to wean away some prominent leaders from the Congress and BJP and getting them to join the BJD. Prominent among such leaders is Congress’ former Union minister Chandrasekhar Sahu.

The appointment of Niranjan Patnaik as the state Congress chief has given a fillip to the CM who feels anti-BJD votes will split, giving his party an edge. Credit: YouTube

Such attempts by BJD to stem BJP’s expansion in Odisha got a fillip with the appointment of former minister Niranjan Patnaik as Pradesh Congress Committee president. Political analysts believe that with Niranjan Patnaik heading the state party will have a positive impact on the party’s traditional vote bank among tribals and Dalits besides galvanising the rank and file and will checkmate the BJP. This, in turn, is expected to strategically divide anti-BJD votes in the state, giving it an edge over its opponents. “It will be advantage BJD,” said a political observer.

Top among the priorities of the new state Congress chief is to stop the exodus of its leaders from the party to the BJD and the BJP, besides building confidence among grassroots workers and assure them that the Congress is still in the reckoning. The principal opposition party in the state, the Congress, has been out of power since 2000.

The party’s successive electoral defeats and continued marginalisation in mainstream politics has demoralised its cadres. Despite strong winning possibilities in the panchayat elections held in February 2017,  the party suffered a severe setback due to internal squabbles and factionalism. The BJP, meanwhile, increased its vote base from just 15% to 32%. The Congress slipped to the third position, while the BJP achieved a nine-fold jump in its tally, winning 297 zila parishad seats out of 851, checking the advance of BJD and throwing the Congress in disarray.

That the BJP’s central leadership is beginning to focus more and more on Odisha, is evident from the frequent visits to the state by Amit Shah. He has restructured the party’s organisational set-up by putting Union ministers in charge of different regions and parliamentary constituencies. The BJP president recently addressed a youth rally in Bolangir in Western Odisha, the traditional bastion of the party. Six out of 10 BJP legislators are from western Odisha.

There seems to be little doubt that chief minister Patnaik is going to face a tough political challenge in the 2019 general elections. Political observers feel that notwithstanding the ‘clean and charismatic’ leadership of Patnaik, his dispensation will find it difficult to survive the strong anti-establishment sentiment building up against the ruling party’s MLAs and MPs.

In addition, the BJD government’s image has taken a beating following the arrest of some of its MPs and MLAs and a string of summons issued by the CBI and the ED against some legislators. A recent case being the Enforcement Directorate summoning and questioning Pranab Balabantaray, legislator from Dharmasal (Jeypore), about his alleged clandestine deal with Cuttack’s notorious Dhalasamanta brothers. Earlier, Mayurbhanj MP Ramachandra Hansda and former Keonjhar MLA Subarna Nayak – both belonging to the BJD – and former BJP MLA Hitesh Kumar Bagartti, were arrested for defrauding investors in the Naba Diganta Capital Services. These arrests come close on the heels of the arrest of Pravat Tripathy, another BJD MLA from Banki. Tripathy was accused of having links to the Artha Tatwa Group scam.

With assembly elections in the state just a year away, Naveen Patnaik has a tough task at hand – he will have to fight the public perception battle about tainted party legislators as well as counter the BJP’s high-voltage campaign against his party and government.

Sudarshan Chhotoray is an Odisha-based journalist.

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