In Bijepur By-Poll, a Whiff of Odisha’s (and Naveen Patnaik’s) Political Future

Rita Sahu’s margin of victory has broken electoral records. But what does it mean for the BJD?

In Odia, bije means ‘victory’. Naveen Patnaik has long been synonymous with Odisha – a truth fortified by the fact that even etymology resonates with his electoral fortune. The Bijepur by-poll, necessitated by Naveen vacating the seat he won in the April-May assembly election, has ended not just in victory for his Biju Janata Dal (BJD) but has broken all manner of electoral records in Odisha.

The seat has been won by Rita Sahu, who won 1,35,957 votes. Her margin of 97,990 votes over BJP’s Sanat Kumar Gartia is the highest ever in the history of the assembly polls in the state. 

Rita Sahu’s share of votes. Source: results.eci.gov.in

Few, however, would consider this an expression of Rita’s personal popularity in western Odisha. 

Rita entered politics in early 2018, six months after her husband and Congress Bijepur MLA Subal Sahu passed away. The Bijepur seat fell vacant with Subal’s passing and the by-poll – then widely regarded as the BJD and increasingly ambitious BJP’s litmus test for the 2019 Lok Sabha and assembly polls in Odisha – took place in February 2018.

Naveen’s choice of Rita as candidate was dictated by age-old considerations in Indian electoral politics. Subal, a three-time winner, had been a friendly face. His wife, therefore, carried the ability to harness emotions, if not administrative faith.

The campaign was heated and the BJD and BJP appeared truly at loggerheads. A day before the 2018 by-poll, a BJD leader was shot dead. Days later, two BJP leaders were attacked at Sohela, close to the site of the shooting. 

Naveen, in his 70s, campaigned with gusto. Through it all, Rita, her head covered and her eyes permanently watery, maintained a demure presence.

Rita Sahu at a rally before the October 21 Bijepur bypoll. Photo: Twitter/@Naveen_Odisha

She won, with a whopping margin of 41,000 votes, over BJP’s Ashok Panigrahy, who had switched to the BJP after Rita’s ticket from the BJD meant none for him. This margin was staggering in itself. For comparison, the last time Subal won in Bijepur, in 2014, his winning margin had been 458.

In the days leading up to the simultaneous polls in Odisha, amidst rumours that Naveen had fallen seriously ill, the BJD chief announced that he would contest from both his mainstay of Hinjli and the western Odisha frontier of Bijepur.

The reasons could not have been clearer. Naveen’s party is largely operative in coastal Odisha, leading BJP to have concentrated its efforts in western Odisha. The hinterland, residents of which allege they have been largely ignored by the ruling dispensation, had played host to multiple visits by Amit Shah, Narendra Modi and the party’s main man in the state, Dharmendra Pradhan. Caste considerations also led BJP leaders to be photographed at multiple meals in western Odisha homes. Their target had been clear, the party would come as a saviour for an ignored demographic.

At such a juncture, that Naveen would defy honed electoral practice to contest from a Bargarh seat was a stirring reminder that he may not speak the language of the state but he was firmly in a position to fulfil its political expectations.

Taking absolutely no one by surprise, Naveen won from Bijepur. He got 1,10,604 votes and defeated BJP’s Sanat Kumar Gartia by a margin of 57,122. Comfortable though this margin may have been, it now falls more than 40,000 short of Rita’s, against the same candidate. 

So what changed in the five months that passed between Naveen’s victory and Rita’s victory? Why did the machinery of the BJP, which had outlined a ‘Mission 120+’ plan indicating the number of seats it aimed to capture in the 146-seat Odisha assembly ahead of the April-May election, fail so spectacularly in the case of Bijepur? 

The answer could well be in the fact that Naveen and BJD are entwined in a unique understanding with BJP. Naveen’s party has supported the BJP in key legislations in parliament, in spite of the charged rhetoric unleashed by both parties against each other on the campaign trail. 

Also read: More Ally Than Enemy: BJP And BJD’s Strange Connection in Odisha

BJD has supported the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill that divided J&K into two union territories – a move made even more surprising by Naveen’s enduring allegation in the poll arena that BJP at the Centre has been dithering when it comes to granting special status to Odisha. 

BJD has also supported smaller moves by the BJP at the national level, like Ram Nath Kovind as the presidential candidate and Ashwini Vaishnav as BJP’s candidate to the Rajya Sabha. The latter is particularly curious, seeing that BJD could have had its pick of three candidates but chose to support BJP’s choice for one of the seats.

In return, the Patkura by-polls were essentially fought by one unified party, with the BJP not throwing its weight behind its own candidate, Naveen’s sustained political adversary Bijoy Mohapatra, as a kind of return gesture. 

Mention must be made here of the several BJD leaders who are embroiled in several chit funds scams at various stages of investigation by the Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation, two agencies believed to be working harder than even ground-level workers for the BJP leadership. 

It has long seemed suspicious in Odisha’s political circles that Naveen has left the BJD, a party he founded and which is close to completing an astonishing 20 years in power, without a second generation of leadership.

Shorn of dissenters like Baijayant Panda (who has joined BJP) and Damodar Rout (who has joined and left BJP), the party is a close circuit of Naveen loyalists, none of whom present a face for its future. Is there, thus, a tacit understanding that power will slowly slip to BJP from BJD?

While rumours swirl of a level of bonhomie that leaves Odisha without an opposition (in BJP) and the Centre without a critical voice in the parliament (in BJD), Rita’s stirring margin is a testament to the fact that the state’s control is firmly, if only temporarily, in Bhubaneswar.