Messages from the States

Print edition : March 21, 1998
KALYAN CHAUDHURI

Total seats 21Biju Janata Dal 9Bharatiya Janata Party 7Congress(I) 5

THE marginalisation of the ruling Congress(I), the decimation of the Janata Dal and its Left allies and the emergence of the Biju Janata Dal(BJD)-Bharatiya Janata Party combine as a major political force in the State are the most significant aspects of the electoral verdict in Orissa.

The Congress(I), which won 17 of the 21 parliamentary seats in the State in 1996, was swept aside by a wave of anti-incumbency sentiment. The party won only five seats. Only twice in the past has the Congress(I) fared worse - in 1977, when it won four seats, and in 1989, when it won three. Several political heavyweights of the Congress(I) and the Janata Dal lost the elections this time.

Of the five seats that the Congress(I) won, four were seats it had won in 1996 - Berhampore, Koraput, Nawrangpur and Jagatsinghpur. It wrested the fifth - Jaipur - from the Janata Dal. Chief Minister J.B. Patnaik's wife Jayanti Patnaik won in Berhampore on the Congress(I) ticket. The party suffered major reverses in Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Puri, Dhenkanal, Phulbani and Sambalpur. In Dhenkanal, former Union Minister K.P. Singh Deo was defeated by Tathagata Satpaty of the BJD; in Sambalpur, Krupasindhu Bhoi lost to Prasanna Acharya, also of the BJD.

The BJP won its first parliamentary seats from Orissa this time. It won seven of the nine seats it contested; most of these were in western and northern Orissa. State BJP president Juel Oram was elected from Sundergarh; former president Debendra Pradhan wrested Deogarh from the Congress(I). The BJD won nine of the 12 seats it contested, mostly in coastal Orissa. Significantly, the BJD-BJP combine also made inroads into Congress(I) strongholds in constituencies with a high proportion of tribal communities and Dalits. The huge margins with which many of the BJD-BJP candidates won point to an upsurge of popular support in the combine's favour.

Following the emphatic victory of the BJD-BJP combine, its leaders said that the Congress(I) had lost its moral right to govern the State. State BJP secretary Prasanna K. Mishra said: "The result vindicates our poll plank of 'able leadership and stable government'. They also reflect the mass anger against the non-performing and corrupt J.B. Patnaik Government in Orissa." The BJD's political affairs committee chairman, Bijoy Mahapatra, demanded that the Congress(I) Government resign and seek a fresh mandate as the people's verdict was decisive.

Many pollsters had predicted a virtual sweep by the Congress(I) after Biju Patnaik's son Navin Patnaik broke away from the Janata Dal to form the BJD. They had reasoned that the Congress(I) would benefit from a split in the Opposition vote. Congress(I) leaders were at a loss to explain their party's poor show. Congress(I) spokesman Kailash Acharya said: "The results are totally unexpected. We are trying to find out the reasons for the debacle."

The three rounds of campaign tours by Sonia Gandhi to the State did not have much of an impact in electoral terms. On the other hand, former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's campaigning on behalf of Jayanti Patnaik in Berhampore appears to have had an impact. Narasimha Rao had won from Berhampore in 1996 but was denied the Congress(I) ticket this time.

The State Congress(I) leadership insists that the election was not a referendum on the performance of the State Government. J.B. Patnaik dismissed calls for his resignation and said: "The results have nothing to do with the performance of the Government. It is not an anti-establishment vote."

Some Congress(I) leaders, however, admitted in private that a strong anti-establishment mood, combined with the Janata Dal's obliteration which led to a consolidation of the Opposition votes, contributed to the Congress(I) debacle. Others blamed the infighting in the Congress(I). Dissident Congress(I) leaders alleged that the party had fared badly because voters were disenchanted with J.B. Patnaik's misrule and nepotism: they pointed to the fact that his wife, son-in-law and relatives all held positions of power.

The Janata Dal, which was enfeebled by the split in December, the large-scale desertion of the party by its workers, and a funds crunch, suffered one of its worst electoral reverses: it failed to win a single seat. The party's sole star candidate, former Union Minister for Tourism and Parliamentary Affairs Srikant Jena, finished third in Kendrapara, a key coastal constituency that was hitherto considered a 'safe' seat for the Janata Dal. He secured only 91,565 votes; the BJD candidate secured 2.82 lakh votes and the Congress(I) came a close second with 2.74 lakh votes.

Navin Patnaik, who was elected from Aska where he defeated his Congress(I) rival by a margin of 86,000 votes, told Frontline that the victory of the BJD-BJP alliance indicated that the people had "rejected the corrupt Congress(I) Government" in the State. "Ours is a secular party. We have built up an alliance with the BJP with the primary objective of removing the corrupt Congress(I) from power in the State." He said that the victory of BJD candidates had "vindicated our contention that our party is the real inheritor" of Biju Patnaik's legacy.

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