Late swing?

Print edition : May 16, 2014

People waiting to listen to Narendra Modi at an election rally in Sambalpur, Odisha, on March 14. Photo: Manas Rath/PTI

NOBODY had expected a drastic change on the political scene in Odisha until the Sangh Parivar succeeded in its attempts to project Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s prime ministerial candidate, with the support of a focussed publicity campaign.

A wave of support for Modi started sweeping many regions of the State just a few days before polling, thereby changing political equations and making things difficult for Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president Naveen Patnaik.

As support for Modi started swelling, partly because of a strong anti-incumbency factor, psephologists too changed their predictions, projecting figures that were discouraging for the BJD.

Leaders of the BJD were surprised to witness the change in the voters’ mood. Until the “Modi wave” hit the State, the BJD top brass was confident of victory as the Congress, the main opposition party since 2000, had become a divided house. But strong triangular contests in almost all Parliamentary and Assembly seats in the State left everyone surprised.

In fact, until the ticket was allotted, neither the Congress nor the BJP could imagine that there was so much anger among the people against the ruling party and many of its sitting legislators. The BJD had appeared to have emerged stronger by inducting into its fold many prominent leaders from parties such as the Congress, the BJP, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) just days before the polls. Naveen Patnaik had succeeded in sending a strong signal to the opposition that he had virtually won the election even before it had been actually fought.

The Lok Sabha elections were influenced by the “Modi wave” and also by the fact that the BJD did not have any clear idea about its role in national politics, in order to keep its vote base intact. The BJD faced serious difficulties even in constituencies where its nominees had won with huge margins in the 2009 election.

When it came to the Assembly elections, the BJD had to handle multiple problems. Even as the nominees of a faction-ridden Congress failed to emerge as major challengers, dissidence within the BJD local units in many places made many of its supporters vote either for the Congress or for the BJP.

Further, many traditional supporters and sympathisers of Naveen Patnaik preferred to vote for the BJP because of Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha elections, without even considering the stature of the BJP candidates in many constituencies. This split among its voters affected the BJD’s prospects not only in the Lok Sabha but also in the Assembly elections. Though the people of Odisha had little knowledge about the Gujarat model of development, they were apparently swayed by the BJP’s “good days are ahead” slogan. Naveen Patnaik’s development plank, based on the freebies that he had announced for different sections of the voters, had little impact, particularly in the Lok Sabha elections.

The minority vote is also likely to influence the outcome in the two Lok Sabha constituencies of Sundargarh and Kandhamal, where members of the Christian community might have cast their votes either for the Congress or for the BJD. The Muslim votes might also have gone to the Congress or the BJD in places such as Cuttack, Bhadrak, Kendrapara and Bhubaneswar. However, since these communities constitute less than 5 per cent of the voters in the State, they are unlikely to have a big impact on the outcome.

As the BJD’s popularity was waning and the Congress had failed to strengthen itself, the BJP, which was organisationally weak since Patnaik parted ways with it before the 2009 election, emerged as a major force. Its revival was aided by the planned approach adopted by the Sangh Parivar and scores of its allies, including Baba Ramdev’s yoga outfits.

Corruption was not a major election issue in Odisha this time. This was mainly because Naveen Patnaik had largely remained silent over the corruption issue since his own government was involved in a series of scams such as the multi-crore mining scam, the chit fund scam, the MGNREGS scam and the dal scam.

In such a situation, the BJP managed to make the maximum gains as the Congress, which had earned a bad name for itself at the national level because of the various scams, failed to take on the BJD as a united force. Though the Congress had a good chance of returning to power in the State this time, it failed to project itself as a viable, united alternative to the BJD with a clear leadership.

In fact, the Congress has never fought an election as a united party since it was voted out in the 2000 Assembly elections. Leaders heading the Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee (OPCC) were removed from their posts months before the general elections in 2004, 2009 and 2014, leaving the party practically leaderless.

Such was the level of infighting in the Odisha Congress unit that virtually no senior leader except Union Minister Srikant Jena, who later headed the party’s campaign committee in the State, was seen with OPCC president Jayadev Jena. Barring the election rallies that were addressed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, the Jenas failed to organise public meetings in support of their party nominees in any part of the State.

Speculation is now rife that the BJD may not find it easy to form the government on its own in the State for the fourth consecutive term. This is because both the Congress and the BJP are likely to substantially increase their strength in the 147-member Assembly. The BJD had won 103 seats, the Congress 27 and the BJP six in the 2009 polls.

The general opinion is that Naveen Patnaik may retain power because of the support his government had extended to women’s self-help groups across the State and the sops it had given to farmers, youth and families living below the poverty line. But it is also possible that the outcome may leave pollsters eating their own words.

Prafulla Das

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