The Biju Janata Dal’s comfortable victory over BJP candidates in the two assembly by-polls – one in Balasore and the other in Tirtol – held on November 3 in Odisha signalled a trend very different from that from the by-elections to state assemblies in 11 states, including Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, where the saffron party registered an impressive win by securing most of the seats.
In the election to both the assembly seats in Odisha, the Congress secured a distant third position. While it polled only 25,000 odd votes in Tirtol, the grand old party lost its deposit in Balasore where its candidate received less than 5000 votes.
How did the BJD candidate in Balasore, Swarup Kumar Das, defeat the BJP’s Manas Kumar Dutta, by a margin of 13,351 votes and wrest a seat that the saffron party had won in the 2019 elections by almost a similar margin?
Coupled with this neat victory, the BJD candidate Bijay Shankar Das’s comprehensive win in the Tirtol assembly constituency – by trouncing the nearest BJP candidate Rajkishore Behera by 41, 703 votes – categorically proved as a testament to the pro incumbency sentiment that has reaped benefits for the Naveen Patnaik-led government during the last 21 years.
Last year in April 2019, the election for the Patkura assembly constituency could not be held because of the death of the BJD candidate and, when it was held in July, the BJD won by a comfortable margin and defeated the BJP’s Bijoy Mohapatra who had also emerged as a serious contender for the seat.
Later in October 2019 when the by-election was organised for the Bijepur assembly constituency, following the vacation of the seat by none other than chief minister Naveen Patnaik himself, who retained the Hinjili assembly seat, BJD candidate Shrimati Rita Sahu handily defeated the BJP candidate by a whopping margin of over 97,000 votes – a record in the history of assembly elections in Odisha.
Successive triumphs for the BJD for several decades have created a new electoral record not only in Odisha but in national politics and public life as well.
While up until 2014, the Congress ranked second after the BJD in terms of the number of assembly seats, the party has since ceded that space to the BJP, which won 23 seats in the 2019 elections. The Congress won only 9 seats and has since been pushed to margins of the state’s electoral politics.
The BJD’s successive wins – including in the by-polls – explain the unmistakably pro incumbency feeling for the party under Patnaik’s leadership. The BJP’s elevation to the second position is also noteworthy. In the 2019 elections, while the BJD vote share was 44.7% the BJP’s was 32% and the Congress’s was a mere 16%. Even though the then BJP President Amit Shah had set a goal for the party to win 120 out of 147 seats in the state in the assembly elections, the BJP got only 23 seats. With the loss of Balasore seat in the recent by-elections, its strength has been further reduced to 22 seats.
So what explains the BJD’s impressive electoral success in election after election and particularly, its striking victory in the by-elections in Balasore and Tirtol, which represents a contrasting trend from that in states where BJP candidates won most of the seats? It is all the more significant to analyse the BJD victory in the two by-elections given that BJD president and chief minister Naveen Patnaik did not physically visit the constituencies to campaign and virtually addressed only one election rally in each of the constituencies. He assured people that he would visit the constituencies after the outbreak of COVID-19 had been contained.
Patnaik move, to virtually address only two rallies, stood in sharp contrast to several other chief ministers who extensively visited the constituencies going to polls and participated in several election rallies. What endeared people to Patnaik was his appeal to voters that the work and development of both the constituencies was his own responsibility. Balasore is a part of the coastal region of Odisha and has been hit badly by cyclones and natural disasters.
Therefore, while addressing people and appealing to them to vote for the BJD, Patnaik referred to the super cyclone of 1999 which wreaked havoc and claimed more than 20,000 lives. In that context, he pointed out that owing to its excellent disaster management skills, his government had saved precious human lives, thereby commanding respect and recognition from the global organisations and the UN for the same. These factors combined with his assurance that development for Balasore was his responsibility became impactful.
It is also interesting to note that both the by-elections were fought on local issues and even BJP leaders, including Union minister Pratap Sarangi who represents the Balasore parliamentary constituency as an MP, steered clear from making any references to the scrapping of J&K’s special status, the recently enacted Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and Ram temple in Ayodhya in an attempt to appeal to voters to vote for BJP candidate Manas Kumar Dutta, who happened to be the son of the sitting deceased BJP MLA Madan Dutta.
It was widely reported in the media that, while campaigning for her son, Madan Dutta’s wife and mother of BJP candidate Manas Dutta, would often break down on the stage and speak in a sobbing tone, appealing to the electorate to vote for her son who would represent her husband’s legacy while serving as a BJP MLA. In contrast, the BJD pushed the work done for the constituency under the leadership of Naveen Patnaik as the main plank of its campaign. An appeal in the name of a sympathy vote for the BJP hardly impressed voters.
The Odia words for cry (kanda) and for work (kam) were heavily employed by the BJD in setting a creative narrative asking people to choose between kam and kanda. Consequently, the kam vs kanda narrative caught the imagination of voters in Balasore and the perception that the BJP was soliciting votes under the garb of sympathy was firmly planted into the minds of the people. The BJD’s narrative, therefore, gained traction at the popular level. The BJP campaign centring around the generous assistance given to the state by the Modi government was not good enough to get back the trust of the voters.
The other factor which worked against BJP was voters’ repeated grievance that, as an MP and Union minister, Pratap Sarangi hardly visited the constituency and his justification that he was not only representing his constituency but the whole of India did not go down well with people who felt slighted and devalued. It was interpreted as an arrogant assumption on the part of the Union minister.
The third and indeed one of the most decisive factors was the population composition in the constituency, which is home to thousands of Muslims. In the 2019 assembly elections, many Muslims voted for the BJP candidate because of his personal contacts and engagements with them. On the condition of anonymity, a person close to the Union minister Sarangi said that unlike the deceased BJP MLA’s close social relationships and interactions with Muslims of his constituency, Sarangi had neither the aptitude nor the outlook to cultivate relationships with them.
Added to this was the assurance by chief minister Patnaik that the NRC would not be implemented in the state, even after the BJD voted for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which enabled Muslims to repose their faith in the BJD. Minister for Culture Jyoti Panigrahi in the BJD government in Odisha said that Patnaik’s assurances about the NRC were a huge factor in winning the hearts of Muslims who had gathered in large numbers in Bhubaneswar to protest the CAA.
In fact, the people of Balasore steadfastly believed in the secular credentials of the BJD and hence voted in favour of the BJD candidate.
In the Tirtol by-election, BJP leaders including Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan did not raise issues surrounding the CAA or Article 370 and focused on local issues such as the absence of roads, employment opportunities and quality education. The BJD candidate in Tirtol also happened to be the son of the deceased sitting MLA and, in this case, no one from the candidate’s family shed tears in the hopes of mobilising voters. More than any sympathy factor, the BJD stressed on its record of achievements by Naveen Patnaik government and contrasted it with the campaigns of the BJP and Congress which claimed to expose the government’s claims of providing food, health and economic security to the people right from birth and death.
The small segment of Muslim population in Tirtol also voted for both the BJD and Congress and the BJP hardly got their votes.
At the national level, election analysts have not assiduously analysed the real strength of Naveen Patnaik’s canvassing in winning elections despite not delivering any long speeches in any election campaign. He communicates through his work undertaken at the grassroots level – particularly the self-help groups, which consist of seven million women across the state (the numbers continue to rise) constitute a soft power bank for Naveen Patnaik. In the two by-elections, they played a key role.
Several women, who came from economically underprivileged backgrounds, told this correspondent that before joining the self-help groups, they were dependent on their husbands and in-laws for money. However, now because of the interest-free loans they have received, they have been engaged in small business activities and can now support themselves and their families. They all attribute their economic empowerment to Naveen Patnaik.
For the last general election in 2019, Patnaik had decided to field women candidates in one-third of the 21 parliamentary constituencies. By doing so, Odisha set a new trend across India for greater representation of women in the parliament. Out of seven BJD women candidates, five won their elections. Patnaik gave a party ticket to Pramila Bisoyi, from a self help group, who contested elections from the Aska parliamentary constituency which was once represented by him. She won by a huge margin and it made a stunning impact across the state and people. Now the self-help groups are more active than before.
It is also important to note that, unlike many other states in the country, politics in Odisha is largely free from caste, religion or identity politics. In both the by-elections, not a single leader invoked a caste or religious slogan during the election campaign. No one from the BJP raised a ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan or the issue of the Ram temple.
The BJD’s resounding victory drives home the point that when regional parties define the narrative of politics based on local issues of people, the BJP’s polarising politics and narrative stand exposed and are proven to be hollow.
As Rajesh Ramachandran, the chief editor of Tribune, had rightly observed:
“The minorities of Kerala rejected the Left’s Sabarimala politics, reposing faith in the Congress. Much as Indian elections are tough to predict, our voters cannot be reduced to mathematical equations. Naveen Patnaik has never practised the politics of caste or communal polarisation, nor does he belong to a numerically significant caste group, nor does Odisha have a sizeable Muslim population. Yet, he wins election after election defeating the BJP twice. That ought to be the new normal in Indian politics: victory for transformational politics.”
The elections in Odisha and the by-election results of Balasore and Tirtol should affirm the victory for a new normal in Indian politics.