Saffron strategy for Odisha

Print edition : May 12, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets party supporters after arriving in Bhubaneswar to attend the BJP national executive meet in mid April. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik after paying tribute to his father Biju Patnaik's statue on occassion of 20th death anniversary in Bhubaneswar on April 17. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

Having made significant inroads into the State during the local body elections, the BJP moves into top gear in its mission to consolidate its gains.

AFTER its impressive performance in the Odisha panchayat elections in February, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is currently drawing up plans to take on the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and conquer Odisha. The party held a two-day national executive meeting in Bhubaneswar in mid April, which boosted the morale of the party cadre. The Varanasi-like road show by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the State capital, which was attended mostly by BJP workers from all over the State, was hyped by the saffron party with the help of a section of the media. Television channels and newspapers have been creating the impression that the party cannot wait to contest the elections in 2019.

In its efforts to make its presence felt in the 36,000 polling booths, the BJP has announced its plans to make Odisha the laboratory of welfare schemes for the poor. The implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana is being accorded top priority to take the Modi government’s message to more rural areas in the State.

The BJP, which has a strong presence in the interior parts of the State, has also started the process of strengthening its base in the coastal regions, where it fared relatively well in the local body elections in some districts such as Khurda and Kendrapara. It has already tried to strike a chord with the people of Odisha with Modi felicitating the descendants of martyrs of the Paika rebellion during his two-day visit to attend the national executive meet.

Drawing up strategies to woo voters ahead of elections is nothing new, but any party needs workers at the grass-roots level to effectively implement them, which the BJP does not have in the State although it won nearly 300 zilla parishad seats out of 846 in this year’s local body elections compared with just 36 in 2012.

It is common knowledge that the BJP fared better than the Congress, which bagged only 60 zilla parishad seats compared with 128 in 2012, primarily because most senior Congress leaders wanted their party to win fewer zilla parishad seats so that they could approach their high command for the removal of Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee president Prasad Harichandan from his post. Congress zilla parishad candidates contesting under the party symbol lost in several places even though the sarpanch and samiti member candidates supported by the party were successful in those very areas.

Some 16 Congress legislators led by the Leader of the Opposition, Narasingha Mishra, backed by several senior party leaders, have been trying hard to oust Harichandan since last year.

The Congress, which has been out of power since 2000, can only emerge stronger if it gets a new leader who enjoys the support of his colleagues. And if the Congress manages to improve its performance by getting back to form by 2019, it could hurt the BJP more than the BJD.

Even though it may not come to power in Odisha in 2019, the Congress can still spoil the BJP’s chances and indirectly help the BJD in the triangular contests that are on the cards for all 21 Lok Sabha and 147 Assembly constituencies. The BJD, if it remains united, will emerge victorious even if the BJP moves ahead of the Congress, as it did in the recent local body elections.

Although the Congress has been fighting the BJD since 2000, the lack of unity among Congress leaders has been detrimental to the party’s growth. Congress workers eager for a change in government in the State will have no option but to join the BJP if their leaders do not unite and give the ruling party a tough fight.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has already created a record as the longest-serving Chief Minister of the State. The BJP can win a majority in Odisha only if the BJD crumbles and that is highly unlikely in the current scenario.

The BJP’s apparent bid to create a division in the BJD Parliamentary Party has been averted following a tweet war between two of the regional party’s Lok Sabha members, Tathagata Satpathy and Baijayant Panda, recently. As Panda now stands exposed as the lone BJP sympathiser within the BJD, Naveen Patnaik has started reworking his strategies to remain ahead of both the national parties.

Realising that fissures were seen in his party organisation at the grass-roots level and anti-incumbency was noticed in some areas during the recent elections, the Chief Minister has already changed the leadership in both the students’ wing and the youth wing to infuse new vigour.

He has also appointed a senior Indian Police Service (IPS) officer as an officer on special duty to improve the functioning of his office.

In a dramatic shift in his style of working, Patnaik has started to reach out to the people at large, from going out to buy books at a city bookshop to felicitating a six-year-old girl named Tiki, who displayed exemplary courage to save her sister from the jaws of a crocodile, and taking a picture with her.

Even as his party won 56 per cent of the zilla parishad seats, Patnaik has started interacting with the BJD’s newly elected local body representatives from different districts at the party headquarters in Bhubaneswar in the presence of the party’s sitting legislators and prominent leaders from those districts. He is trying to strengthen the party organisation by ensuring proper implementation of various welfare schemes at the grass-roots level.

The BJD, which is named after Naveen Patnaik’s father and former Chief Minister Biju Patnaik, is keeping his legacy alive by naming several welfare schemes after him in order to retain its State-wide clout.

The BJP has the backing of many organisations that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has been running in the State. It is also inducting leaders from rival parties and prominent personalities from different walks of life to gain strength.

A crucial test of the BJP’s rise in strength would be the elections to the urban local bodies to be held in the State next year. The BJD emerged stronger in urban areas in 2013 as poor and working class people supported it for some of the State government’s welfare schemes.

As on date, the BJD is sitting comfortably. Patnaik continues to maintain his clean image despite his popularity taking a minor hit recently. He may well steer his party to success in 2019 too if he manages to keep his party and support base together.