16 Jul 2019

With an eye already on the next general elections, the BJD and BJP will once again lock horns in Odisha this month

Siddhartha Tripathy

It has hardly been two months since the marathon elections drew to a spectacular close, but the major political players in Odisha have already begun laying the groundwork for 2024. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of the ruling Biju Janata Dal has already been taking many proactive steps – from increased public outreach to enhanced accountability for elected representatives and government servants at all levels, not to mention ever-improving welfare schemes – to further build on an already impressive level of administration.

This, in all likelihood, will ensure that the son of the legendary Biju Patnaik is locked in for a record-extending sixth term.

However, if the past election was any indication, the BJD must also brace for increasingly stiff competition from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Earlier this month, the BJP’s Odisha chapter launched its membership drive in the state capital of Bhubaneswar, having publicly set for itself an audaciously ambitious target.

Speaking on the occasion, Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said: “In Odisha, we have launched the membership drive from Ekamra Assembly constituency. We have set a target to enrol 50 lakh members this time."

The numbers that the saffron party has at present is 36 lakh, and Pradhan revealed his party’s focus on bringing more young and educated people from the society into its fold.

Calling on the party workers to plant at least five saplings in every booth and run the Swachh Bharat campaign effectively across Odisha, Pradhan later tweeted: "@BJP4India is a party that is committed to serve the society, including people from the bottom of the pyramid. Urged people in Odisha to join #BJP and strengthen our efforts in fulfilling the aspirations of 130 Crore+ Indians."

After all, the BJP has not only emerged as the second largest party in the state by winning 23 seats out of the 146 contested in the 147-strong state assembly and eight Lok Sabha seats out of 21 in the state, it has also significantly increased its vote share.

No wonder all eyes are on the upcoming elections to the Patkura Assembly seat under the Kendrapara Parliamentary constituency, scheduled to be held on the twentieth day of this month. Although it was supposed to be a part of the fourth phase of the recently concluded elections, polling had been postponed due the death of BJD candidate Bed Prakash Agarwalla.

On paper the Patkura poll results, which are scheduled to be declared on July 24, might seem inconsequential considering the elections are over – but that is not how the BJD and the BJP are seeing it. It seems to hold a lot of symbolic significance now, considering the prestige battle that it has turned out to be between the BJD and BJP, not least due to the candidate the saffron party has put up for the constituency: Bijay Mohapatra.

There is a lot of history behind this.

A long-time trusted aide of Biju Patnaik, Mohapatra was one of the top guides of Naveen when he entered politics after the demise of his father. Mohapatra had not only played a key role in the formation of the BJD but also had been pivotal in strengthening the party’s base in Odisha in those early years. Deservingly, he was the chairman of the BJD’s political affairs committee. But unfortunately that powerful position also fuelled the perception of him being one of Naveen’s political rivals. As a result, he was denied a ticket in the 2000 elections and shunted out of the party.

Not to be denied, he joined the Trinamool Congress and beat the BJD’s candidate. But that was the last time that he ever pipped the BJD to the post. In all subsequent elections over the past 19 years, Mohapatra has found himself on the losing side, thanks in no small part to Naveen’s ever-increasing popularity in the state.

But now, with an undeniably resurgent BJP, he has a better chance than ever to make an electoral comeback. If he does, he can re-enter the Bidhan Sabha and stay put for the next five years as a thorn in the side of the BJD. After all, Mohapatra has had decades-long experience of – and a well-earned reputation for – being fierce and articulate critic of the ruling regimes of Odisha.

The BJP is leaving no stone unturned for that to happen. Union Ministers Dharmendra Pradhan and Pratap Sarangi, along with most of the party’s MPs from Odisha have been roped in to campaign for Mohapatra. Many other senior BJP leaders, including KV Singhdeo and Manmohan Samal, are already in Patkura to maximise the chances of Mohapatra bagging the constituency. The hitherto floating notion that the BJP would not fight the Patkura polls seriously enough due to its allegedly newfound proximity with the BJD (after the latter’s support for saffron candidate Ashwini Bhave for a Rajya Sabha seat) has gone out of the window.

A new one doing the rounds is that Mohapatra may use his close relations with some BJD leaders to engineer a split in the ruling party and make way for a BJP government in Odisha.

If there at all any truth to that notion, Naveen will make sure to nip it in the bud.

For starters, many senior BJD ministers such as Prafulla Malik, Susanta Singh, Raghunandan Das, Arun Sahoo, Randendra Pratap Swain, Samir Ranjan Dash, Divyasankar Mishra and former ministers such as Sanjay Dasburma Pratap Keshari Deb and Atanu Sabhyasachi Nayak will be running a powerful campaign for their candidate, Sabitri Agarwalla (widow of Bed Prakash Agarwalla),with many of them already stationed in Patkura for that purpose.

The Chief Minister himself is personally involved, considering he has already visited the famous Baladevjew temple in Kendrapara on Snana Purnima last month and is also likely to campaign in Patkuraa for a couple of days in the very near future.

The BJD leadership has set itself a target of winning Patkura by at least 30,000 votes, according to sources close to these developments.

Although the stage seems to be set for a two-way battle between the BJD and the BJP, the Congress is also in the mix with its nominee Jayant Mohanty.

Odisha Congress president Niranjan Patnaik recently declared that his party will contest the Patkura polls with “all sincerity”.

But most experts agree that it is a long shot for Congress, whose organisation is in a shambles and is all set for a major reshuffle. Niranjan Patnaik himself had offered to resign following the party’s devastating show in the assembly elections, which has not been accepted.

But with the national party president, Rahul Gandhi, having successfully done the same, the future of Congress looks grim at this moment. The district committees in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka have been dissolved and a three-member disciplinary committee has been set up to examine the indiscipline and anti-party activities during the Lok Sabha elections. That might be step in the right direction, if the Congress manages to resolve its leadership crisis. Until then, their downward spiral in Odisha shall continue to plumb abysmal depths.

No such problems for the BJD and BJP, though, as they pull out all stops to keep the public on their side. And that can mean only one thing: Victory of democracy.

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