Patnaik all the way

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Chief Minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik (second from right) releasing the party manifesto in Bhubaneswar on April 9. Photo: PTI

Naveen Patnaik at a roadshow in Berhampur on April 10. Photo: Lingaraj Panda

A Dongria tribal woman waits to cast her vote at a polling station in Rayagada district of Odisha on April 11. Photo: ASIT KUMAR/AFP

Going by the groundswell of support for Naveen Patnaik’s roadshows and public meetings, his party looks all set to win the simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and the State Assembly.

When campaigning gained momentum for the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Odisha this time around, the people got to see Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president Naveen Patnaik in a new avatar. For, the campaign of his party and its rivals, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), revolved around Patnaik.

Despite heat-wave conditions, the four-time Chief Minister flew frequently from Bhubaneswar to different corners of the State to hold roadshows and address public meetings seeking votes for his party nominees.

In the first ever roadshow in his two-decade-long political career, Patnaik drew huge crowds. Hundreds of men and women stood along roads to have a glimpse of him. Wherever the gathering was large, Patnaik’s customised bus stopped and he addressed the crowd from atop the vehicle. Where the crowd was thin, he addressed it from his seat inside the bus.

Wherever Patnaik addressed a meeting, he had just one question to ask the audience: “I have come to your village, are you people happy?” As soon as the audience replied in the affirmative, his response was prompt: “I am happy too.” This question, which helped him connect with the voters well, became popular among the people across the State.

In fact, Patnaik had planned to cover a distance of 1,000 kilometres by road. “It’s the fifth term, you have to try hard,” he told journalists who asked him why he was undertaking such an elaborate campaign for this election.

The going was not easy this time. Apart from the challenges that the Congress and the BJP posed, anti-incumbency worked against many of the BJD’s sitting legislators. The Congress lagged behind both the BJD and the BJP in terms of campaign momentum and publicity. This despite the fact that the Congress finished second in the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections held in the State in 2014. The party is said to be facing a resource crunch.

On the other hand, a resourceful BJP has left no stone unturned to overtake the Congress and pose a direct challenge to the BJD. The BJP has the maximum number of campaigners, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party president Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The party also has more film-star-turned-politicians than the BJD. While some of them are in the fray, others are busy addressing public meetings seeking support for their party nominees.

When it comes to the question of leadership in the State, however, the saffron party has failed to project a leader. None of the prominent BJP leaders are contesting the Assembly elections, though many are in the fray for the Lok Sabha election. When the BJP tried to cash in on the anti-incumbency factor, Patnaik taunted the party for failing to name a chief ministerial candidate.

“Who is the BJP’s second engine in Odisha?” asked Patnaik, in response to Modi’s appeal to the people to vote for BJP candidates for a “double-engine government” in the State and the Centre for Odisha’s development. “The people of Odisha want to know who the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate is. Where is his constituency? Is the BJP scared to announce its chief ministerial candidate?” asked Patnaik.

He said that for his party, empowerment of women was the key to ensure the development of the State. His party has fielded women candidates in seven of the 21 Lok Sabha constituencies in the State.

Patnaik claimed that the election of the 68-year-old Pramila Bisoi, a self-help group (SHG) member and BJD nominee from Aska parliamentary constituency, would create history in the country. She was present when Patnaik filed his nomination papers for the Hinjili Assembly seat and she also accompanied him when he campaigned in the region.

The BJP sought votes citing Modi’s leadership and a strong government at the Centre. Patnaik, on the other hand, apart from highlighting his government’s schemes such as the Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) and Mission Shakti, kept the focus on the Centre’s alleged neglect of Odisha and the failure of the Modi government to fulfil its promises.

The BJD president said that the BJP leaders visited the State only during elections. “They will not been seen after the elections. I have always remained with you. The four and a half crore people of Odisha are my family. Give me your blessings. I will continue to serve you till my last breath,” said Patnaik.

He also accused the BJP leaders of not visiting Odisha during the Phailin and Hudhud cyclones and floods.

Patnaik also had to fight a shadow battle away from the poll arena. The BJD released a video clip on April 5 to combat rumours about its lone star campaigner. In the video, Patnaik is seen stretching, cycling and lifting dumbbells at his residence and saying: “Getting ready to fight for the people of Odisha.” Then fresh rumours started circulating about the video, hinting that it was an old video. Finally, a television interview in which Patnaik answered questions about his health and politics while working out at his house made the rumours stop.

Patnaik called the BJP a communal party and said that Modi did not deserve a second term as Prime Minister. Not only had the Centre failed to provide employment as promised in 2014, it had also failed to double the minimum support price for paddy, he said.

At a meeting in Nabarangpur parliamentary constituency in south Odisha, Patnaik sought to know from the BJP the reason behind the discontinuation of funding for the KBK (Koraput-Balangir-Kalahandi) scheme. The Modi government had stopped funds to the tune of Rs.250 crore a year for the KBK scheme in 2016-17.

In his efforts to stay ahead of both the national parties, Patnaik tells the public that no national party will get a majority on its own this time and that Odisha will have a role in the formation of the Central government.

The BJD has taken up Odisha’s cause at the national level and has demanded special category status for the State. The party’s manifesto has said that it will support a government that is sympathetic to the legitimate rights of Odisha. “This will be our only agenda with the Central government.”

Focus and continuity

The BJD’s manifesto, which was prepared by incorporating people’s suggestions collected through the party’s Ghare Ghare Sankha (a conch in every house) programme, makes it clear that its 2014 manifesto is the base for its 2019 manifesto so that there is focus and continuity in the development process. Patnaik also reiterated his commitment to farmers, women and youth. Since the KALIA scheme could not be implemented in full because of the model code of conduct, he announced that financial assistance for two crops, amounting to Rs.10,000, would be released to farmers on the first day after the new government took over if his party was voted to power.

“No one can stop KALIA until I am alive,” said Patnaik, who led a delegation to the office of the Chief Electoral Officer, Odisha, urging him to allow the implementation of the KALIA scheme.

He announced that women belonging to the six lakh SHGs in the State, with more than 70 lakh members, under Mission Shakti would be provided government work worth Rs.5,000 crore with a projected profit margin of about Rs.500 crore.

Patnaik also announced new schemes that would impart free education for girl children from kindergarten to postgraduation and provide marriage assistance of Rs.25,000 for girls of poor families. Not a single widow or destitute woman would be left out of social security cover, he said. He announced the enhancement of insurance cover under the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana for women from Rs.7 lakh to Rs.10 lakh.

Since the opposition parties have made unemployment and migration a major plank in this election, the BJD has promised in its manifesto that 75 per cent of jobs in all upcoming industries in Odisha will be reserved for qualified local youth. The State’s skill development mission, Skilled in Odisha, will be made a global brand and 15 lakh youth will be trained in vocational skills in the next five years. Further, Odisha will create world-class sports facilities and will be the face of sports in India.

The BJD, in a bid to end regional disparities in the State, has also announced a special initiative called JUHAR (Joint Upliftment of Habitations and Regions). The scheme’s aim is as follows: “To reduce regional disparities and fast pace development, we will have Special Development Councils in Bargarh, Bolangir, Boudh, Deogarh, Jharsuguda, Kalahandi, Sambalpur districts and Athmallik, Kuchinda and Nilagiri Sub-Divisions.”

Patnaik is simultaneously contesting from the Bijepur Assembly segment of Bargarh Lok Sabha constituency in western Odisha and from Hinjili Assembly segment of the Aska Lok Sabha constituency in south Odisha.

Going by the situation in rural areas, Patnaik seems to be ahead of his rivals, despite the BJP’s best efforts to challenge his leadership. The regional party’s ideological distance from both the Congress and the BJP has helped it in the elections in 2009 and 2014 and it may come to its rescue this time too, unless the voters move away from Patnaik because of their anger against some of his legislators.

After polling was over in four Lok Sabha and 28 Assembly constituencies in Odisha in the first phase on April 11, Patnaik claimed that his party would perform better than it did in the 2014 elections. His party won 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats and 117 of the 147 Assembly seats last time.

In sharp contrast, Modi claimed at a rally in Sambalpur days before the second phase of elections that the BJP was set to sweep the elections. Calling himself chowkidar repeatedly, he claimed that indications after the first phase of elections in the State were that the BJP would form the government both at the Centre and in the State. But if the people’s response to Patnaik’s roadshows and public meetings are any indication, he is still the most popular political figure in Odisha and on his way to a fifth consecutive term as Chief Minister.