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A Chief Minister's victory

Print edition : Jun 04, 2004 T+T-

In Orissa the clean image of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, working in tandem with the Vajpayee factor, wins another term for the Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance.

in Bhubaneswar

THE National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre had not announced any special package for Orissa. The oil refinery project at Paradip, the foundation stone for which was laid by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000, had not taken off. The Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput (KBK) region did not receive any special attention from the Centre. In sum, there was nothing to feel good about the NDA government's performance in Orissa, except for the four-laning of National Highway No.5, which passes through the State. Yet, the people of the State gave a fresh mandate to the Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJD-BJP) alliance in the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls.

Unlike several other States, in Orissa, the ruling alliance appears to have benefited from the Vajpayee factor and the India Shining campaign. The public meetings of Vajpayee, the Bharat Uday Yatra of L.K. Advani and the election meetings of senior BJP leaders and film-star-turned politicians seem to have earned the alliance rich dividends. The extensive campaign by Chief Minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik strengthened the poll prospects of the alliance.

In contrast, the Congress(I) remained far behind the ruling combine in electioneering. It could not highlight the alliance government's failure on various fronts. Roadshows by Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi were organised in the State much in advance. However, when it came to campaigning for the elections, Sonia toured the State only for a day. She addressed only three public meetings, that too on the day campaigning for the first phase of voting came to a close. Although Sonia was scheduled to campaign in Orissa before the second phase of polls, her visit was cancelled.

The Central leadership of the Congress(I), it seems, did not focus on Orissa - the party did not send its national leaders to campaign in the State. Former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh attended some election meetings, but he did so in his capacity as the party leader in charge of the State. The Congress(I) did not have anyone from its Orissa unit to campaign for the party across the State. All the State leaders remained busy in their own constituencies. The Pradesh Congress(I) Committee headed by former Chief Minister J.B. Patnaik was also not able to strike a chord among the people.

Said Rabi Das, Editor of the Oriya daily Paryabekhyak: "There was a clear preference for Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Orissa. The people of the State never felt that the Congress(I) would return to power at the Centre."

When the votes were finally counted on May 13, the outcome was even beyond the expectations of the leaders of the BJD-BJP alliance. The combine bagged 18 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats, virtually repeating its performance in the 1999 elections when it won 19 seats. The only difference was that the victory margin of the alliance nominees decreased in some seats. The BJD contested 12 seats and won 11 as against the 10 it got in the last election. The BJP contested nine, but won seven as against nine last time. The Congress(I) managed to win only two seats and its ally, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, one.

While the Congress(I) retained Koraput, it lost Dhenkanal, from where former Union Minister K.P. Singh Deo had won last time. Singh Deo lost to former Chief Minister Nandini Satpathy's son Tathagat Satpathy. However, the party wrested the Berhampur seat from the BJP, which also lost the Mayurbhanj seat to the JMM. The BJP's defeat in Mayurbhanj was chiefly because its candidate, Bhagirathi Majhi, was a relatively unknown face. Salkhan Murmu, who won from Mayurbhanj in the last election, had deserted the party long ago. In Berhampur, the popular mood did not go against the BJP although its candidate and sitting MP Anandi Sahu had failed to nurture the constituency.

Said Tathagat Satpathy: "Orissa stood out on the national scene primarily because of Naveen Patnaik's clean image and the people's antipathy towards the well-tested and discarded leadership of J.B. Patnaik."

Apart from Singh Deo, the other prominent losers of the Congress(I) include former Union Minister Srikant Jena, who was defeated by Archana Nayak of the BJD in Kendrapara, and former Union Minister Bhakta Charan Das, who lost to the BJP's B.K. Deo in Kalahandi. J.B. Patnaik's wife Jayanti Patnaik and son-in-law Soumya Ranjan Patnaik lost in Cuttack and Bhubaneswar respectively.

The election, however, saw former Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang winning from the tribal-dominated Koraput seat for the ninth time. Gamang got the ticket at the last minute as the party had earlier announced his wife Hema Gamang as the nominee for the seat.

In the BJD-BJP alliance, the BJD's lone woman candidate, Archana Nayak, was elected to the Lok Sabha. The BJP's only woman nominee, Sangeeta Kumari Singh Deo, won from the Bolangir seat by defeating former Pradesh Congress Committee president Sarat Patnaik.

However, for obvious reasons, the alliance did not celebrate its victory in the Lok Sabha elections.

SILENCING his critics in the Opposition and elsewhere, Naveen Patnaik led the BJD-BJP alliance to a comfortable victory in the Assembly elections. Opposition parties had branded him a non-performer. He was criticised for his inability to master the Oriya language and his excessive dependence on bureaucrats. There was widespread criticism that the BJD-BJP government he headed had done little for the development of the State.

Yet, when he addressed rallies, reading out his Oriya speeches written in the Roman script and candidly confessing that he be given some more time to master the language, the people cheered him on. His enigmatic appeal appears to have touched the hearts of millions of Oriyas.

The electorate seemed hardly worried about the unemployment situation that was aggravated by the closure of numerous industries, particularly public sector enterprises, or the falling per capita income of the State. Irrigation projects remained incomplete, agriculture continued to be in the doldrums, and the distress sale of paddy continued.

The people of Orissa rallied behind the Chief Minister, who is perceived to have stuck to his promise of providing a clean and transparent administration. Patnaik's clean image added credence to his claims of not sparing corrupt public servants. At his public meetings Patnaik proclaimed: "I don't spare anybody - be it an engineer, an Indian Administrative Service officer, Ministers or even the Speaker of the State Assembly." The people had reason to believe him because that is what he had done during his four-year rule.

The BJD's lack of organisational strength and coordination with its ally in the runup to the polls did not affect the electoral prospects of its nominees, except in a few constituencies where the two parties failed to exchange seats despite making an announcement to that effect.

What really helped Patnaik at the hustings was the appointment of former Chief Minister J.B. Patnaik as president of the Pradesh Congress Committee in January. Had any other leader led the Congress in the State, the going would not have been so smooth for the alliance, which won 93 seats in the 147-member Assembly.

The BJD chief criticised J.B. Patnaik's leadership and described his election to the post as "old wine in old bottle". When the Congress opened its doors to most of the rebel BJD leaders and provided them the ticket to fight the polls, Patnaik termed the Congress(I) in Orissa a "corruption club".

Despite the fact that he himself had received the mantle of his father, the late Biju Patnaik, Naveen Patnaik accused the PCC chief of perpetuating family rule by securing the Lok Sabha ticket for his wife Jayanti Patnaik and son-in-law Soumya Ranjan Patnaik and the Assembly ticket for himself and for his son-in-law's elder brother Niranjan Patnaik. The Congress failed to counter the charges raised against the party.

Further, the BJD chief went on comparing his four-year-rule with the 14-year "misrule'' of J.B. Patnaik. He even hired a street theatre group from Bhubaneswar to stage a play at over 100 locations across the State to highlight the contrast between his government and the regimes of J.B. Patnaik, which were characterised by controversies and scams.

Naveen Patnaik started his poll preparation months in advance when senior Congress leaders in the State were busy fighting among themselves and making frequent trips to New Delhi with an eye on the post of PCC president. He toured almost all the 30 districts of the State before he announced that Assembly polls would be held along with the Lok Sabha election. He attended official functions to lay foundation stones for various projects and inaugurated the ones that had been completed. When it came to actual campaigning, he addressed over 200 meetings and covered almost all Assembly segments.

The Congress(I) started its campaign late in the day. The party took a long time to finalise the names of its candidates. It took time to forge an alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI), and the Orissa Gana Parishad (OGP). The joining of hands with the JMM and the CPI was not a smooth affair. The alliance of the Congress(I) with the four parties, coming too late in the day, did not go well with party workers on either side.

Issues concerning the welfare of the State's poor were sidelined in the campaign. In the event, of the 147 Assembly seats the BJD won 61 (it contested 84) and the BJP bagged 32 (it contested 63). However, the combine suffered minor losses in the polls, and in many places its nominees won by narrow margins. In the February 2000 polls, the BJD had won 68 of the 84 seats it contested, while the BJP won 38 of the 64 seats it contested.

The Congress(I) showed some improvement in its performance this time - it won 38 seats as against the 26 seats it got last time. The JMM won four, the OGP two, and the CPI(M) and the CPI got one each. The remaining eight segments were won by independents.

The Assembly polls threw up quite a few surprises. Prominent among the losers were the OGP president, Bijay Mohapatra, and the president of the Janata Dal(S) Orissa unit, Ashok Das. Four Ministers - Mangala Kisan and Panchanan Kanungo of the BJD, and Bedprakash Aggarwala and Arabinda Dhali of the BJP - also lost.

Said Lopamudra Baxipatra, general secretary of the BJD's youth wing: "It was because of the Chief Minister's clean image that people voted for our alliance across the State. It was also because of his charisma that the BJP's lotus bloomed in the State and the Congress failed to put up an impressive show".

Patnaik assumed the office of Chief Minister for the second time on May 16, he had virtually nothing to worry about. The new Assembly had very few strong leaders, and his popularity remained intact. He can even manage without bothering to learn Oriya.