Patnaik yet again?

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik filing his nomination for the Bijepur Assembly constituency on March 25 with Rita Sahu, who won a byelection in 2018 from the seat on the BJD ticket, standing next to him. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Former Rajya Sabha member Baijayant Panda, who left the BJD to join the BJP, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election meeting in Jeypore, Odisha. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

Naveen Patnaik reaches out to the people in order to beat the anti-incumbency factor that the Congress and the BJP hope to exploit in Odisha.

The Biju Janata Dal (BJD), headed by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, has remained undefeated since it won its first Assembly election in Odisha in March 2000 and has gone from strength to strength. The regional party, however, is facing challenges from two national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the current simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the State.

But though the BJD has been fighting anti-incumbency for a long time, the possibility of its winning yet another term cannot be ruled out as it appears stronger than the Congress and the BJP at the grass-roots level. Neither of the two national parties has been able to put up a chief ministerial candidate to match the charisma of Patnaik, who has remained the undisputed leader of the BJD and has single-handedly led the party to win election after election.

From 2000 to 2009, the ruling BJD was in alliance with the BJP. But Patnaik severed ties with the saffron party months after the communal riots in Kandhamal. The BJD performed well in the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 2009 by sharing seats with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI).

The BJD won 103 seats in the 147-member State Assembly in 2009, while the Congress won 27 seats and the BJP six. The BJD’s performance improved further in 2014 when it fought without any alliance or seat-sharing arrangement with any party. It bagged 117 Assembly seats, while the Congress won 16 and the BJP 10.

As regards the Lok Sabha elections, the BJD won 14 of the 21 seats in 2009, while the Congress won six, and one went to the CPI. The BJD swept the 2014 election by winning 20 seats, while the BJP was able to win only one despite the Modi wave then prevailing across the country.

Things seemed to be going fine until the BJP sprang a surprise in the February 2017 panchayat elections, in which it notched up an impressive tally and dislodged the Congress as the main opposition in rural Odisha. The BJP, which was looking to expand its base following its victory in the 2014 general election, started to further strengthen its organisation in Odisha.

The BJP’s April 2017 National Executive meeting in Bhubaneswar was attended by a host of top leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party’s national president, Amit Shah. To keep the momentum going, around 40 Union Ministers visited the State around that time, a trend unheard of in the State before.

When Shah arrived in Bhubaneswar, the Odisha unit of his party offered him two lotus garlands—one with 21 flowers representing the Lok Sabha seats and another with 147 flowers marking the Assembly seats in the State. The BJP has also been inducting disgruntled leaders from the Congress in order to strengthen its party organisation.

Patnaik, who had inducted Congress leaders Bhupinder Singh and Anup Sai from western Odisha into his party before the 2014 election, started the process of guarding his party’s base. When an Assembly byelection was held in Bijepur Assembly seat in Bargarh district in western Odisha in February 2018 following the death of Congress legislator Subal Sahu, Patnaik roped in the late leader’s wife, Rita Sahu, and fielded her as his party’s nominee.

The Bijepur byelection was seen as a precursor to the 2019 election. The BJD registered an impressive victory by winning the seat by a margin of over 41,000 votes. The BJP finished second, and the Congress, third. The BJD won all the panchayat byelections in different parts of the State, much to the dismay of the BJP.

Patnaik did not stop there. He inducted former Union Minister and senior Congress leader Chandrasekhar Sahu and many of his associates from Ganjam district in south Odisha into his party in April 2018.

In January 2019, Patnaik welcomed Naba Kishore Das, an influential Congress leader in western Odisha and working president of the Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee, into the BJD. The former Congress legislator from Sundargarh, Jogesh Singh, also joined the BJD in February.

Party hopping became a daily affair in the State as the election dates approached. The BJP roped in two former BJD leaders, former Lok Sabha member Baijayant Panda and former Minister Damodar Rout. At least two sitting Lok Sabha members, Balabhadra Majhi and Arjun Charan Sethi, and several legislators of the BJD quit the party after being denied the party ticket and joined the BJP. The BJP also roped in Prakash Behera, the Congress legislator from Salepur.

In an attempt to counter the BJP drive, Patnaik welcomed two influential BJP leaders into his party’s fold—Subhas Chauhan in Bargarh district and Raj Kishore Das in Mayurbhanj district. Both had been denied the BJP ticket. In 2014, Chauhan, contesting as a BJP nominee, had lost the election to the Bargarh Lok Sabha seat by a narrow margin. At least two BJP leaders, Bhagirathi Sethi and Tusharkanti Behera, joined the BJD after they were given the BJP ticket to contest the Assembly election. By the time ticket distribution was complete, however, the BJP had more turncoats as its nominees than the BJD and the Congress.

Prominent among them were Balabhadra Majhi for the Nabarangpur Lok Sabha seat, Baijayant Panda for the Kendrapara Lok Sabha seat, and Damodar Rout for the Balikuda-Erasama Assembly seat in Jagatsinghpur district. Not surprisingly, the party also faced protests in several districts from its own workers who resented the fielding of leaders from other parties who had just joined the BJP. The BJD is still ahead of its rivals in the State, which is witnessing triangular contests in almost all Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies. The BJP is hell-bent on fighting the BJD and outsmarting the Congress, which is also striving hard to improve its performance.

All three parties are busy showering promises. While the BJD is banking upon the achievements of its government in the past 19 years, the BJP is emphasising the NDA government’s achievements and the leadership of Narendra Modi.

The Congress, plagued by infighting and a weak leadership in the State and on a losing run for the past few years, has been making promises on the lines of the assurances made by the party president Rahul Gandhi. The party hopes to do well in the regions adjoining Chhattisgarh, where it captured power recently after 15 years. It has also shared a few Lok Sabha seats and some Assembly constituencies with the CPI, the CPI(M), and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

Both the Congress and the BJP hope to cash in on the anti-incumbency sentiments against the BJD government. Patnaik, however, has adopted novel tactics to counter anti-incumbency. He has retained only four sitting Lok Sabha members and fielded as many as 17 new candidates.

He has also opted to contest from a second Assembly seat in western Odisha, where the Congress and the BJP have made their presence felt. He has chosen Bijepur, where he had campaigned extensively during the byelection. The BJD expects Patnaik’s candidature from western Odisha to thwart the growth of the two rival parties.

In keeping with his campaign for reservation of one-third of the seats for women in Parliament and the State legislature, Patnaik has fielded as many as seven women candidates for the Lok Sabha election. Although he has not succeeded in fielding women in one-third of the Assembly seats, he has increased the number of women candidates.

Patnaik has fielded Pramila Bisoi, a senior women’s self-help group (SHG) worker, to contest in the Aska parliamentary seat, where he made his electoral debut.

More than 70 lakh women are involved in six lakh SHGs across the State under the Mission Shakti programme, which Patnaik launched in 2001. The number of SHGs working when the mission was launched was 34,000; the number has grown exponentially. SHGs are considered close to the ruling dispensation. Patnaik has focussed on women’s development ever since he took charge as Chief Minister for the first time in March 2000.

He has tried to address the growing agricultural crisis by launching the Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) scheme. More than 37 lakh farmers, sharecroppers and agricultural labourers have been extended financial benefits under the scheme, which has virtually overshadowed the PM-Kisan scheme of the Centre. Another 20 lakh beneficiaries are likely to be covered under the scheme.

KALIA scheme funds

But KALIA has hit a stumbling block over its implementation. The Election Commission of India put a hold on disbursements of funds that were to be transferred from April 1. The Chief Electoral Officer of Odisha has sought “additional information/clarification” from the State’s Chief Secretary and the Principal Secretary of the Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment Department after a delegation of the ruling BJD approached him on March 16. The delegation made the point that the KALIA assistance to more than 20 lakh farmers should not be stopped because of pressure tactics by the BJP on the E.C.

The BJD has made this an election issue. The party has also revived its campaign over Central negligence in various sectors. Countering Modi’s claim that “Odisha will become second Tripura this time”, Patnaik has claimed that his party will “do very well” in the coming elections.

As the streets across Odisha get crowded with posters, banners, hoardings and party flags, the State is witnessing a fierce triangular electoral battle with candidates of the BJD, the Congress and the BJP in the fray along with those of other parties. Patnaik is countering the high-decibel campaign of the BJP by undertaking road shows in different parts of the State. Special buses have been acquired by the BJD to help Patnaik to reach out to the people at large.

The BJD is sitting pretty with both its rival parties, the Congress and the BJP, competing to displace it from power with equal passion. As the two national parties are poles apart in the political arena, there is no serious threat to Patnaik’s supremacy. Thus, the BJD under Patnaik’s leadership may win the elections for a fifth consecutive term.

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