Split and hope

Print edition : April 24, 2009

ORISSA is all set to witness a different kind of elections this time round. All the three major political parties the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have virtually promised the moon to the voters in the 21 parliamentary seats and the 147 Assembly constituencies, where elections will be held in two phases, on April 16 and 23. As the vast majority of the voters live below the poverty line, these parties have, among ot her things, promised rice at a cheap rate.

Chief Minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik set the trend in August last year when he launched a scheme to give 25 kilos of rice at the rate of Rs.2 a kilo to all below-poverty-line (BPL) families and also to above-poverty-line families in the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region. The BJDs manifesto lists the cheap-rice scheme as one of its achievements and says no one in the State will be allowed to go hungry. The opposition parties had criticised Patnaik for starting the scheme with an eye on votes, but now both the Congress and the BJP have also offered rice at Re.1 a kilo to BPL families.

The BJP has emerged the smartest of the three. In its manifesto, the party, which is going it alone following the March 7 snapping of its links with the BJD, has also promised BPL families daal at Rs.5 a kilo and free salt.

Until recently, Orissa was heading for the elections with the BJD-BJP ruling combine on one side and the Congress as the major contender, in almost every seat. But the situation changed after the alliance split, and the Congress now entertains hopes of returning to power after a gap of nine years.

Although the BJP and the BJD split ostensibly over differences in the sharing of parliamentary and Assembly seats, the leaders of the saffron party alleged that it was the BJD president who betrayed them in gross violation of coalition principles.

In fact, long before the seat-sharing talks, the alliance had developed cracks in the wake of the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal district in December 2007 following the killing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Government action against the rioters angered the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar.

Initially, Naveen Patnaik seemed to tolerate the violence, but he changed his mind when BJP legislators stalled the proceedings of the State Assembly demanding the arrest of the swamis killers and criticism against his government grew in the country and abroad. He told the media that each bone of his body was secular.

When the Sangh Parivar threatened to observe a bandh on Christmas Day, Patnaik sought the help of the BJPs central leadership to prevent it. The bandh was prevented, but from then on the BJD worked to marginalise the BJP. It fought the civic elections in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack alone and did well; the BJP performed poorly.

K.P. Singh Deo, Pradesh Congress Committee chief, and Ghulam Nabi Azad, AICC secretary in charge of Orissa, at a party meeting in Bhubaneswar on March 3. The Congress is hopeful of doing well in the Lok Sabha seats as there is no wave this time in favour of the BJP.-ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

The BJD also organised a series of public meetings, titled Vikas Samavesh, to highlight the State governments achievements. When it came to seat-sharing talks, the party demanded a bigger share. It wanted more than 100 Assembly seats and a bigger share of Lok Sabha seats.

As soon as the talks failed, the BJD snapped its ties with the BJP and got into talks with other parties, such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM). When the BJP withdrew support to the government after the breaking of the alliance, the BJD saved it with the help of these parties and independents.

For the Lok Sabha elections, the BJD has entered into seat-sharing agreements with the NCP, the CPI(M) and the CPI. Of the 21 Lok Sabha seats, it has left one each for the three parties. Similarly, it has left 17 Assembly seats for the three parties. In the Lok Sabha elections of 1999 and 2004, the BJD contested 12 seats and the BJP nine. The combine bagged 19 seats in 1999 and 18 in 2004.

In the Assembly polls of 2000 and 2004, the BJD contested 84 seats and the BJP 63. In 2000, the BJD won 68 seats and the BJP 38. The Congress finished third with 26 seats. In 2004, the combine won 93 BJD 61 (vote share: 27.36 per cent) and BJP 32 (vote share: 17.11 per cent). The Congress improved its performance, winning 38 seats (vote share: 34.82 per cent).

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik with the BJDs manifesto.-PTI

Congress leaders had little hope of doing well in the State until the ruling alliance split. Suddenly, they found that balance of power had been restored. The party now hopes to win a majority in the State Assembly. In a three-way division of votes, it is also confident of winning the majority of Lok Sabha seats.

Congress leaders are of the view that if the BJD cuts into the BJPs votes in the interior districts, where the saffron brigade is strong, their party will win by default. They, however, are not sure whether the BJP can garner a substantial number of votes in the coastal belt, where the BJD is strong.

Coastal Orissa has for long been a stronghold of anti-Congress parties. But this time the Congress expects anti-incumbency sentiment and the dwindling support base of some sitting legislators to affect the prospects of the BJD in the region. This will, it believes, help it win a sizable number of Assembly seats.

Further, the party is hopeful of doing well in the Lok Sabha seats as there is no wave this time in favour of the BJP, unlike in 1999 and 2004 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a popular choice for the Prime Ministers post in this part of the country.

On the other hand, the BJP is trying hard to damage the chances of the BJD. With little hope of putting up an impressive performance in both the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections, the party is roping in leaders from all parties to increase its strength.

Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley (second from left), State unit president Suresh Pujari (third from left) and other leaders release the partys manifesto in Bhubaneswar on March 30.-ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Meanwhile, the BJD, which has emerged as a major force in the State, is adopting all possible means to win. As the achievements of the State government and the clean image of the party president alone may not help it win the elections, the party has inducted leaders from the Congress and other parties.

The BJD, which accuses the Central government of neglecting the State, highlights issues concerning farmers, tribal people and other backward sections. It has also promised a series of welfare programmes for the minority communities.

While assuring a transparent, efficient and accountable administration, the party has appealed to the electorate to vote in its favour to realise veteran Socialist and Naveen Patnaiks father Biju Patnaiks dream of making Orissa one of the most prosperous States in the country. But with a triangular contest on the cards, who will emerge as the single largest party is anybodys guess.

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