BJP’s blueprint for Odisha

Print edition : July 31, 2020

Union Home Minister Amit Shah addresses Odisha Jan Samvad rally via video conferencing, in New Delhi on June 8. Photo: Atul Yadav/PTI

Biju Janata Dal supremo and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik arrives to attend the party’s executive body meeting in Bhubaneswar on September 01, 2019. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

The BJP is deploying all the tricks of the trade to capture power in Odisha, which has been under Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s sway for over two decades now.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cadres in Odisha have been upbeat ever since the party replaced the Congress as the main opposition in the State Assembly in the 2019 elections. Now, with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), led by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, in office for the fifth consecutive term, the BJP is hopeful of ruling the State in the future.

The party had gained ground in the gram panchayat elections held in February 2017 itself when it emerged as the second largest party in Odisha, after the BJD. The Congress came third.

A constituent of the two-party ruling coalition with the BJD in Odisha from 2000 to 2009 until they parted ways, the BJP kept strengthening its base for eight years. Being in power at the Centre, it had resources which the Congress lacked.

Since its significant victory in the panchayat elections, a host of its top leaders and Central Ministers visited the State, with the Modi-Shah duo taking the lead. However, its all-out efforts to defeat the BJD in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections held simultaneously in 2019 did not succeed. Naveen Patnaik proved to be unassailable despite a “Modi wave” in the wake of the Pulwama attack (in Jammu and Kashmir in February 2019 in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel got killed in a suicide attack) and the Balakot surgical strike (in Pakistan which India conducted later that month).

In many constituencies, particularly those adjoining the Hindi-speaking States, people voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections and the BJD in the Assembly elections. This resulted in the BJP winning eight of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the State, up from its tally of one in the 2014 elections. The BJD’s number of seats went down from 20 in 2014 to 12 in 2019. The Congress, which won six seats in 2009 contesting against the BJP and an alliance of the BJD, the Left parties and the Nationalist Congress Party, could not win a single seat in 2014; but it managed to win a seat in 2019.

In the 147-member State Assembly, while the BJD succeeded in maintaining its supremacy with 113 seats, the BJP won 23 seats and the Congress nine.

Strengthening its base

The BJP has been trying to strengthen its base since the BJD snapped ties with it ahead of the 2009 elections. The impressive increase in the BJP’s vote share in 2019 (38.4 per cent in the Lok Sabha elections and 32.5 per cent in the Assembly elections) against the BJD’s 42.8 per cent and 44.7 per cent respectively has bolstered its confidence.

Although both the BJD and the BJP were bitter enemies until the 2019 elections, the latter managed to win the BJD’s support to ensure the victory of its nominee in the Rajya Sabha elections in the State a few months later. It was widely believed that the BJD was going soft on the BJP with the objective of ensuring smooth flow of funds from the Centre to the State.

In the changing political climate, the BJD is no longer opposing the Centre’s moves as it used to so as to protect Odisha’s interests. Be it the Centre’s decision to auction coal mines or the fuel price hike, the BJD has not uttered a word of protest.

Rath yatra

The BJP too has stopped questioning any of Patnaik’s moves and confines itself to raising issues of public concern. Knowing well the extent of the people’s devotion to Lord Jagannath of Puri, it recently tried its best to claim credit for the conduct of the rath yatra in the town.

Although the yatra was held with restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court order in the context of COVID-19, the BJP claimed to have played a major role in facilitating the festival’s conduct. “Considering the urgency and importance of the matter, it was placed in front of a vacation bench of the Supreme Court and the hearing took place this afternoon, which paved the way for the important decision by the Supreme Court,” Amit Shah tweeted on June 22, a day before the yatra. While addressing a Jan Samvad virtual rally on June 8, he also had asked the party cadres to make Odisha a “garh” (bastion) of the BJP .

What is making the BJP brim with confidence? Party insiders believe they can comfortably win the next elections by roping in some Congress heavyweights and BJD dissidents in the run-up to the elections to further enhance its vote share.

Meanwhile, the BJD has started strengthening its organisation by appointing senior leaders in crucial party posts and allocating them different responsibilities in order to maintain its popularity. The process was initiated on July 1, the day the Bahuda Yatra (return journey) of Lord Jagannath, was held in Puri.

The BJP strongly believes that the BJD has been winning elections because of Patnaik’s leadership. He is now 73 years old and the BJP believes that there is no other leader in the party who can step into his shoes. Apparently, the BJP also has plans to engineer a split in the BJD Legislature Party.

Patnaik has told the media in the past that the people of Odisha will choose his successor. Whether people will elect him again or choose his successor before the BJP succeeds in its plan will depend on the move the veteran leader makes in the times to come.