NAVEEN STILL THE ONE TO BEAT
Prime Minister Modi’s popularity may at best give the BJP a semblance of a fighting chance in Odisha, but people of the state seem to have already made up their mind
The popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have surged in the wake of the Balakot air strike but in Odisha it is still Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik who rules supreme. His campaign drew the maximum response and it is now more than clear that Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is once again going to emerge on the top notwithstanding efforts by the BJP to make the lotus bloom in the state.
Odisha’s coastal belt has never been a fertile ground for the BJP, but it is trying hard to make inroads in the region this time. The saffron party handpicked candidates for some of the key seats like Puri, Bhubaneswar and Cuttack.
In Puri BJP’s national spokesperson, Sambit Patra sweated it out in a bid to trump BJD stalwart and three-time MP, Pinaki Mishra. Patra trekked through villages, often dining with common people in their houses.
But even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a popular figure in Puri with people discussing Balakot airstrike and even his schemes like Ujjawala and Swaccha Bharat, the town remains a BJD bastion. “Modi’s work has been appreciated but BJD here is still ahead of BJP,” said Puri resident Dhanada Mishra.
BJP sought to play up issues like spiralling crime, neglect of tourism and the worsening plight of local fishermen who are struggling to make ends meet. Local fishing community leaders are sore with the state government. “Our community members have been facing an existential crisis for last several years but no one seems to be paying any attention. Even tourism has not picked up with no sincere effort to beautify the beach and the town,” said a fisherman.
The sevayats (servitors) of the 12th century Sri Jagannath temple, the town’s most famous landmark, agree that much more needs to be done for Puri and the shrine which, of late, has been in news more for the wrong reasons. Only a few months ago there was violence outside the temple when the administration sought to introduce queue system for the “darshan” of the deities.
There is also concern about rise in crime. Local MLA, Maheshwar Mohanty, who happens to be the state’s revenue minister, had been shot at near his house in the town in 2014. He is contesting yet again from the Puri assembly seat.
But notwithstanding resentment against the state government on certain issues, Patra seems unlikely to dent this bastion of BJD. Patra’s theatrical campaign has failed to make an impact in Puri’s rural belt where people still root for the BJD. “Naveen Babu’s party has an old base in this constituency. It is BJD all the way here,” said a farmer near Pipili.
In Bhubaneswar former IAS officer, Aparajita Sarangi’s campaign has created a buzz. Within a short span of time this hardworking 1994-batch IAS officer, who quit the civil service last November, has covered almost all areas of this vast Lok Sabha constituency. Aparajita, who is the only IAS officer from the state contesting on a BJP ticket, often descends on city parks early in the morning for a chat with joggers. Her campaign is evoking response. “She looks sincere,” said a secretariat employee who visits the Biju Patnaik park daily for walking. Aparajita’s stint as the commissioner of Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation is also being recalled fondly.
Meanwhile, Congress-supported CPI (M) candidate, Janardan Pati is unlikely to have much impact on the outcome of the contest.
In Cuttack, which many call the gateway to coastal Odisha, it seems to be a proxy battle between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, both extremely popular among the people here. Notwithstanding the fact that the seat has been a BJD stronghold, there seems to be no dearth of enthusiasm for Modi.
“Sare vishva mein badha bharat ka samman ” reads a huge billboard in the town with Prime Minister’s photograph. Nearby is a BJD hoarding that reads “hak maguchi Odisha” (Odisha is asking for its right) and accuses the Modi government of not keeping its promise of raising the minimum support price (MSP) of paddy to Rs.1930 per quintal.
Local resident Yashoda Patnaik feels that BJD, which has again fielded battle-scarred veteran, Bhartruhari Mahtab, has an edge because of its strong organisational base in the region. “Besides, its candidate, former director general of police Prakash Mishra is yet to learn the political ropes,” said Patnaik.
Among the other Lok Sabha Kendrapara and Sambalpur, latter being the political nerve centre of western Odisha, have drawn the maximum attention. While Kendrapara has turned into a prestige battle for the chief minister in Sambalpur, the BJP is betting on royal scion Nitesh Ganga Deb who won the last assembly election from Deogarh which is part of this Lok Sabha constituency. Here again issues like displacement caused by Hirakud and Rengali dams and demand for exempting kendu leaf trade from GST and hiking the minimum support price (MSP) of paddy have taken a back seat with the battle turning into a Modi versus Naveen contest.
There is no denying that BJP is trying hard to win as many Lok Sabha seats as possible in the state and also to establish its government in the state for the first time. But its ambitions may remain a pipe dream with people solidly behind chief minister Naveen Patnaik and his party.