Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) won the elections to three-tier panchayati raj institutions in Odisha, which were held in February, by defeating the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress like never before. All his hard work paid off once again.
It is unusual for any political party to put up an improved performance in an election after being in power for five consecutive terms. But the BJD has done it in the panchayat elections by winning 766 of the 852 Zilla Parishad seats with a vote share of 52.73 per cent, the highest in its electoral history.
The BJP, the main opposition party in the State, managed to win 42 seats by securing 30.07 per cent of the votes and the Congress bagged 37 seats and 13.57 per cent of the votes. The BJP’s politics has come full circle in Odisha, shattering its dream of acquiring power in the State.
The BJP failed to win any zilla parishad seat in 10 of the 30 districts in the State, while the Congress could not open its account in 18 districts. The BJP had formed the zilla parishad in eight districts in 2017 while Congress had formed the zilla parishad in two districts.
The BJD, having registered a landslide victory, will form the zilla parishad in all the 30 districts. For the first time, the party has also succeeded in establishing supremacy in all parts of the State. There was little sign of anti-incumbency. People came to vote in large numbers and the regional party won easily.
The BJP, which won 36 Zilla Parishad seats in the 2012 elections after its alliance with the BJD ended on the eve of the 2009 general election, won 10 Assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat in the 2014 general election in the State.
Taking advantage of a weakening Congress, which did not win any Lok Sabha seat in 2014, the BJP started making serious efforts to grow in strength in the State after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014. Although the party won only one Lok Sabha seat, it gave ministerial berths to Jual Oram, elected Lok Sabha member, and Dharmendra Pradhan. Pradhan was subsequently elected to the Rajya Sabha from Bihar. Pradhan started to work towards strengthening the party organisation in the State with special focus on the backward classes. The Central leadership announced that the Mission Purvodaya would start from Odisha. Amit Shah, who was at the time party national president, made frequent visits to the State to encourage the party cadres.
To capture the imagination of the people, the BJP sought to establish the legacy of Bakshi Jagabandhu, who was a leading figure in the Paika rebellion of 1817. The Central government announced a budget provision of Rs.200 crore to celebrate the bicentenary of the rebellion by building a memorial and installing a statue of Bakshi Jagabandhu near Bhubaneswar.
The party was able to strengthen its base and replaced the Congress to become the main opposition party in the State in the 2017 panchayat elections by winning 297 seats of the 846 zilla parishad seats. The BJD won 473 seats and Congress 60 in that election.
With the primary success derived from the 2017 panchayat elections, the BJP dreamed of capturing power in the State. Amit Shah raised the slogan that the party would win more than 120 of the 147 Assembly seats in the State in the 2019 election. (The party won 22 seats.)
The Centre nominated grass-roots level artists, writers and social activists for the award of Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, and Prime Minister Modi visited Odisha many times before the 2019 general election. But Biju Patnaik, who is a master in electoral politics, announced measures for farmers, including the KALIA scheme, and broadened the reach of Mission Shakti with nearly 70 lakh women members in six lakh self-help groups.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP for the first time won eight of the 21 parliamentary seats but when it came to the Assembly election, voters seemed to believe in Naveen Patnaik’s leadership.
In an apparent move to checkmate the BJP’s rise, Naveen Patnaik announced the revival of all important temples and religious places in Odisha, including the Jagannath temple in Puri and the Lingaraj temple in Bhubaneswar. Ahead of the panchayat elections, Naveen Patnaik travelled to many districts to launch the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana smart card to ensure cashless health care coverage for about 3.5 crore people.
Naveen Patnaik deftly managed the BJP’s Central leadership after the 2019 Lok Sabha election by giving it one Rajya Sabha seat when the party had no chance of getting one, and thus changed the political atmosphere in Odisha. Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw was elected to the Rajya Sabha with the BJD’s support.
The BJD’s support to Central laws on key issues and the Prime Minister’s appreciation of the Naveen Patnaik government in Parliament days before the panchayat elections put the BJP on the back foot. The party leaders’ allegations against the Naveen Patnaik government had few takers among voters.
Setback for BJP
After Pradhan failed to make a big impact in the 2019 election, he kept away from party activities in the State, leaving the BJP State unit virtually leaderless. The results of the recent panchayat elections proved disastrous for the BJP as the party has been pushed back to the position where it stood a decade ago.
The Congress witnessed a further decline in its performance, indicating that both the national parties were losing people’s support in Odisha and the regional party was still going strong.
What has shocked many political commentators is the fact that the saffron party has been so demoralised in the panchayat elections that it may not be able to fight the upcoming urban body elections in the State.
With Naveen Patnaik making brand BJD stronger and unbeatable, many BJP and Congress leaders have started joining the BJD ahead of the urban body elections. In such a situation, political observers say, the two national parities will find it difficult to win elections in the State, more so because they can never join hands to fight any election.