Conjurer of Odisha

Surpassing its own expectations, the Biju Janata Dal led by Naveen Patnaik romps home with 117 of the 147 Assembly seats.

Published : May 28, 2014 12:30 IST

Naveen Patnaik being felicitated by BJD supporters in Ganjam district on May 20.

Naveen Patnaik being felicitated by BJD supporters in Ganjam district on May 20.

THE scale of the victory of the Biju Janata Dal led by Naveen Patnaik in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections held simultaneously in the State has taken many by surprise. The incumbent Chief Minister was seeking a fourth consecutive term in the face of anti-incumbency and rebel factors.

The BJD won 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats and 117 of the 147 Assembly seats. In the 2009 elections, the party won 14 Lok Sabha seats and 103 Assembly seats. Significantly, its vote share in the Lok Sabha elections increased from 37.24 per cent in 2009 to 44.1 per cent this time and the vote share in the Assembly elections from 38.86 per cent to 43.4 per cent. Patnaik has taken the oath as Chief Minister for the fourth consecutive term, thereby creating a record. He is the first leader to become Chief Minister of Odisha for four times, and in a row.

Given the fact that both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were way behind the BJD in terms of strength, popularity and leadership, nobody had doubts about its victory. But even BJD leaders admit in private that they too were surprised by the outcome.

Almost all the winners in the BJD credit Patnaik with leading the party to an emphatic victory. Many of the leaders who were expecting to win by a few thousand votes have won by margins of 20,000 votes and more.

The BJD president’s magic touch was evident in the earlier elections too. In 2009, his close aide in the party, Pyarimohan Mohapatra, accurately predicted that the party would win 103 Assembly seats. This time also, Patnaik’s close aide and party vice-president Kalpataru Das claimed that the party’s Assembly seats could go up to 120. He was not way off the mark.

What kept Patnaik’s party ahead of both the Congress and the BJP was his continuous effort to build a sense of regional identity among Odias living in and outside the State. It is another matter that Patnaik himself cannot read, write or speak Odia. The few instances he has made speeches in Odia in public have been with the help of texts transliterated into English.

In the absence of other strong regional parties, Patnaik was also successful in projecting himself and his party as the champions of the cause of the State, notwithstanding the fact that 14 years of his rule had not brought about any significant change in Odisha’s status as the country’s most backward State.

If Narendra Modi promised good days ahead and succeeded in making the BJP emerge victorious at the national level, Patnaik, since he assumed power in the State for the first time in March 2000, has been making promises of building a prosperous Odisha that his father, Biju Patnaik, had dreamt of. The people of Odisha reposed their faith in him and were expecting that Biju babu’s dreams would be fulfilled by his worthy son some day.

The anti-Centre stand adopted by Patnaik since the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance assumed power in New Delhi in 2004 also worked in Patnaik’s favour. Even though the Union government conceded various demands of the State government and announced many pro-poor schemes, Patnaik continued to allege that the Centre was adopting a step-motherly attitude towards Odisha.

Patnaik’s government implemented Central schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and he took the entire credit for their success. He pitched in with his resources from the exchequer to provide rice at Re.1 a kg to woo the voters.

Furthermore, Patnaik succeeded in strengthening the party’s social base with a lot of other measures. A large number of below poverty line (BPL) families remained indebted to the BJD as Patnaik launched a series of pro-poor schemes that covered the entire lifespan of an individual. More than 57 per cent of the population live below the poverty line and the percentage of poor is higher among Dalits and tribal people.

Gender bender

After his party’s victory, Patnaik thanked women, who had voted for his party in large numbers despite an increase in the number of rape and other crimes against women.

Ensuring 50 per cent reservation for women in all the 100-odd urban local bodies across the State last year made him popular among women voters. Besides, there are thousands of women’s self-help groups.

Even as his government tried its best to facilitate the Vedanta Aluminium’s refinery project in Lanjigarh and created a situation conducive for the eviction of hundreds of tribal people to make space for bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills which is considered sacred by the Dongria Kondh tribals, Patnaik in February announced a Rs.12 crore package for the protection, conservation and development of 2,000 places of worship of tribal people. They constitute 22 per cent of the State’s population.

It is common knowledge that hundreds of thousands of tribal people who had been displaced to make way for industries are still awaiting rehabilitation.

Patnaik also kept the hopes of the poor alive by repeatedly demanding from the Central government a special category status for Odisha. With an eye to the elections, his party held a rally in New Delhi last year to highlight the demand, much like the one organised by former Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

What helped Patnaik the most was a faction-ridden Congress. The main opposition party in the State was a divided house before the elections. The infighting cost it dear and its vote share in the Assembly elections dropped from 29.10 per cent in 2009 to 25.7 per cent in 2014. It won 16 Assembly seats as against its tally of 27 in 2009 and won no Lok Sabha seat (six seats in 2009).

The BJP, too, lacked organisational strength in the State. However, backed by the Sangh Parivar organisations that became active after Modi was named the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee, the saffron party became successful in increasing its vote share, from 15.05 per cent in 2009 to 18 per cent in 2014. It won a Lok Sabha seat (nil in 2009) and 10 Assembly seats (six in 2009).

In the Chief Minister’s chair for the fourth time, Patnaik is gearing up to fulfil many of the promises that he had not been able to keep in the past even as opposition parties are busy putting their houses in order.

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