Big test for Patnaik as BJP doubles down on Odisha

Last Updated 19 October 2019, 14:24 IST

The Lok Sabha and assembly elections in Odisha will be an acid test for Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD). The regional outfit has been in power in the state for 19 years, a record in the state’s political history. And therefore, it will definitely be a challenge for the four-time chief minister to handle the anti-incumbency factor.

Moreover, the BJP, one of the BJD’s two principal opponents in the state, has managed to turn itself into a formidable political force in Odisha during the last five years. The second principal opposition, the Congress, is also trying its best to improve its strength, riding on the party’s success in the three assembly elections in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

This has led many observers and analysts to believe that it will not be easy for BJD to have a 2014-like cakewalk this time around, although the party may still be able to score a victory again, albeit with fewer assembly and Lok Sabha seats compared to last elections. Pre-poll surveys conducted by media houses at the national level have also predicted a BJD victory in Odisha.

The 2014 simultaneous assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the eastern state were virtually a one-sided show, run by Patnaik, with the BJD capturing 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha and 117 of the 147 assembly seats in the state. In half of these 20 Lok Sabha seats, BJD nominees had defeated their rivals by a margin of more than two lakh votes. The BJP had managed to win just one Lok Sabha seat and 10 assembly seats.

The Congress had scored a humiliating zero so far as Lok Sabha seats were concerned, though it had managed to put up a slightly better performance than the BJP in the assembly elections, winning 16 seats. The Congress had never before scripted a duck in the history of Lok Sabha elections in Odisha.

Patnaik’s personal popularity still remains very high despite being in power for almost two decades and he continues to be the tallest leader in the state. The problem with the party is, however, that the image of many of his ministers, party legislators and senior leaders has nosedived for various reasons, including charges of corruption and links with dubious characters like chit fund scamsters.

In fact, one BJD Lok Sabha member and two party MLAs were arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in connection with the multi-crore chit fund scam. They had to spend months, in one case more than a year, behind bars before being released on bail. Besides several party leaders and officials, including an assistant in the chief minister residence-office were summoned and questioned by the premier investigating agency in connection with the scam, which is still being probed under the direction of the Supreme Court.

Tarnished image

Besides, Patnaik’s reported over-dependence on a handful of officials to run the government and the visible infighting in the party ranks, even among senior party leaders, have also contributed to tarnishing the image of the party and the government. These factors have provided enough room for the opposition to insist that it will be the end of the road for BJD rule after this election. “The fall of Patnaik rule is imminent. We are going to form the government in the state after the coming polls,” said BJP’s Odisha in-charge Arun Singh in a recent interview.

Sensing opportunities to improve its position in the polls, the BJP has launched an all-out effort to woo voters. Several party leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah besides more than a dozen union ministers, have already visited the state multiple times, addressing public rallies as well as meetings of party workers. The union ministers include heavyweights like Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari.

The Congress hasn’t remained far behind, either. Though the party’s campaign has not been as aggressive as the BJP’s, both state and central Congress leaders have left no stone unturned to galvanise the party ranks and rebuild its support base, particularly in western and southern Odisha, which were once considered Congress bastions.

BJD leaders insist, however, that the efforts of the BJP and Congress would have no impact on the poll outcome and the regional outfit will once again win both Lok Sabha and assembly elections to form the government in the state for a record fifth term banking on the developmental activities taken up for all sections of people, particularly the poor and the farmers.

They especially give the example of KALIA (Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation), the scheme launched by the Patnaik administration for the benefit of farmers which, according to BJD leaders, hugely benefitted agriculturists.

The party will also depend heavily on the clean image of Chief Minister Patnaik. “The party has hugely benefitted from the personal clean image and popularity of the chief minister in all the elections in the past. It will pay rich dividend this time, too,” party spokesperson Sasmit Patra said.

Just days before the election dates were announced, Patnaik declared the party would field women candidates in 33% of the Lok Sabha seats in the state. Observers believe the move is aimed at retaining the party’s support base among female voters. Since its inception, the BJD has managed to create a solid women vote bank, which has played a key role in its success in past elections, particularly during the 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha and assembly polls.

(Published 21 March 2019, 16:13 IST)

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