The Congress’ most prestigious electoral battle in Odisha is in the Balasore Lok Sabha constituency, where senior leader Srikant Jena is facing an uphill task to retain his seat.
Jena, the only minister from the eastern state in the UPA II government, and also the chairman of the party’s state election campaign committee, is part of a fierce triangular contest with Rabindra Jena of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the BJP’s Pratap Sarangi.
The Congress heavyweight had defeated BJD-backed Nationalists Congress Party candidate Arun Dey by more than 38,000 votes despite a pro-BJD wave in the state during the last general elections. He, however, is facing difficulties in emulating that performance this time.
Even leaders of his own party in the constituency concur. “Being the chairman of the state election campaign committee, he was supposed to campaign for party candidates all over the state. But he has not been able to step out of his constituency so far. This shows the difficulties he faces. Jena is definitely batting in a sticky wicket on his home turf,” said a senior Congress functionary in Balasore who did not wish to be named.
Despite wielding considerable influence in the PCC as well as in AICC, Jena has failed to keep his own party men united in the constituency. Infighting has led to many local leaders in the recent past to defect to other political outfits, including the BJD. Some dissidents are all set to dampen his winning prospects.
A case in point is Dr Kartikeswar Patra, two-time former MP from Balasore, who is contesting the polls on a Trinamool Congress ticket. Though he is nowhere near the three principal contenders, Patra may eat away Jena’s crucial votes in key Assembly segments like Bhogarai, where he has considerable influence.
The Congress rebel, and his wife Umarani, were MLAs from Bhogarai in the past. In 2009, Jena had polled a sizeable chunk of votes from this Assembly constituency.
The Union minister’s performance as an MP is far from satisfactory, said many voters in his constituency. During his five-year tenure, he failed to resolve the biggest problem Balasore faced—flooding in major rivers, like Subarnarekha and Budhabalanga.
This north Odisha district is the only one in the state which faces floods multiple times every monsoon. Lives and property worth crores of rupees are destroyed every year due to this. If locals are to be believed, property worth more than Rs 500 crore were lost in last monsoon's floods. Floods have become a major poll issue here this time too.
“When Jena became Union minister, we thought he would do something to save us from the floods. But he disappointed us. I had voted for the Congress last time, but have not yet decided whom to vote for this time. However, it is certain that I am not voting for Jena’s party,” said Paramananda Mohanty, a farmer from Basta, an Assembly segment under the Balasore constituency.
BJD nominee and industrialist-turned-politician Rabindra Jena is trying to take advantage of the situation, promising to redress flood-related problems. The political newbie had joined the regional outfit just a few months ago. But he belongs to a prominent political family in Balasore, is trying to use this to his advantage.
His uncle Chintamani Jena was a two-time MP from Balasore and a two-time MLA from Basta. He is also banking on the personal charisma and popularity of Naveen Patnaik.
BJP candidate Pratap Sarangi, the sitting MLA from Nilagiri, another Assembly segment under Balasore, is depending on his image as an honest and clean politician.
The BJP, with the backing of erstwhile ally BJD, had managed to capture the Balasore Lok Sabha seat three times consecutively between 1998 and 2004, thus creating a vote bank of its own. Sarangi’s supporters are of the view that this “solid vote bank” would see him through.