Naveen's Twin-Seat Master Stroke
His candidature from Bijepur signifies a regional powershift which the people of western Odisha have been waiting for a long time
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s decision to contest simultaneously from his traditional seat of Hinjili in coastal Ganjam and Bijepur in western Odisha is a political master stroke. On the face of it the decision to contest from Bijepur, set in the poverty-ridden drought belt of Bargarh district, was taken in deference to the wishes of Biju Janata Dal (BJD) from the region, but the move is actually aimed at containing the growth of BJP in the western belt.
Hinjili, from where he has been contesting since 2000 when he entered the assembly fray for the first time, has been Patnaik’s pocket borough. It has returned him to the state assembly faithfully every time. The margin of his victories from the seat have been pretty impressive. Last time he defeated his nearest Congress rival by a whopping margin of 76,586 votes. All his opponents there lost their deposits.
Ganjam, in any case, has been Patnaik’s home district and, as such, gives him some distinct advantages. People plump for him invariably as he is seen as the son of the soil. Victory in Ganjam also has a symbolic importance because it happens to be the political barometer of not only the coast but also a large part of southern Odisha. A massive victory in this district is a morale booster for any party.
The importance of Ganjam for BJD is evident from the fact that Patnaik chose three cabinet ministers from the district – Surjya Narayan Patro, Bikram Kesari Arukh and Usha Devi. No other district of the state enjoyed such representation in Patnaik’s cabinet. Talking of Hinjili in particular, Patnaik had showered special attention on the constituency and his voters were both obliged and proud of the fact that they belonged to the chief minister’s constituency.
Then why choose Bijepur to contest simultaneously? Is Patnaik feeling insecure in Hinjili? This is an impression his opponents, specially the BJP, have sought to create. But this impression is completely misleading. Patnaik remains as strong as ever in his traditional constituency.
His candidature from Bijepur is actually a strategic move. Patnaik’s candidature from the seat would signifiy a regional power shift which the people of western Odisha have been waiting for a long time. For long they have been told that real political power lies with the leaders of the coastal belt as they have almost invariably occupied the chief minister’s chair in Bhubaneswar, that western Odisha has been deliberately neglected and left to wallow in poverty and neglect.
Patnaik’s candidature is bound to change this perception, specially at a time when anti-coast sentiments are running high in the region with the agitation for the establishment of a separate High Court bench at a crucial stage. It will, thus, assuage the wounded sentiments of the people and stop the BJP from taking advantage of it.
As it is the BJD is keen to stem the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the vast western Odisha belt comprising five Lok Sabha and 37 assembly constituencies. The BJP had made significant gains in Bargarh, Bolangir, Kalahandi, Sambalpur and Sundergarh, the districts representing the five Lok Sabha constituencies of the region, in the 2017 panchayat elections when the party won a record 297 zila parishad seats against the 36 it had bagged in 2012 rural polls.
The BJP was the biggest gainer in those elections even though BJD had emerged as the single largest party with 473 seats. The ruling party’s zila parishad tally had dropped significantly compared to the 651 seats it had won in 2012. Congress had finished a poor third with just 60 seats.
The 2017 panchayat elections, thus, marked a period of tremendous growth for the BJP while setting the alarm bells ringing in the BJD which suddenly appeared to have become unsure of its base in western Odisha with a saffron wave sweeping the region. The BJP won 33 out of the 36 zila parishad seats at stake in Kalahandi district while it bagged 25 out of 34 in Bargarh and 23 out of 34 in Bolangir district. It also improved its tally in Sundergarh and Sambalpur districts winning 13 zila parishad seats in each of them.
The party also improved its tally in some of the coastal districts but the results reaffirmed its supremacy in a large part of western Odisha, the region which accounts for eight of its 10 MLAs in the state assembly. The saffron party is now hoping to make big gains in the region again in the wake of the growing popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi following the Balakot airstrike.
This is why most of its senior leaders, including Prime Minister Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, have been focussing on this belt. Shah has made several visits to the area during the last one year. His rallies were largely attended and he succeeded in striking a chord with the people. The BJP hopes to cash in on the undercurrent of sentiment that Modi should once again become the Prime Minister of the country. “It is quite possible that at some places people vote for BJP in the Lok Sabha while they plump for BJD in the state assembly,” said an analyst.
Aware of the BJP’s designs, the chief minister has made a deft political move by deciding to contest from Bijepur in addition to Hinjili. Patnaik’s candidature will not only raise the profile of this western Odisha constituency but also send a message across the region that he is keen on its development. That is bound to ensure the BJD’s victory in this belt.