In April 2014, when most of India was in the midst of a Modi wave, Odisha was among the few states that remained largely untouched. That was primarily due to a wall called Biju Janata Dal (JD), led by the wily chief minister, Naveen Patnaik.
The regional powerhouse — the most successful one in the history of Odisha — won 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats, while in tribal-dominated Sundargarh, former Indian hockey team captain, Dilip Tirkey gave a scare to union tribal affairs minister, Jual Oram, before the BJP could scrape through with just one seat.
Four years later, much water has flown through Odisha’s biggest river Mahanadi, but the BJD is still looking formidable. The BJP still appears to be a pretender to the throne, despite some electoral successes for the saffron party in the recent past.
In February last year, the BJP’s fortunes changed after it increased its vote share from 15% to 32% in the panchayat polls. The saffron headwind, which Patnaik managed to beat in 2014, appeared to have finally arrived to jolt him.
A nine-fold jump in zila parishad seats and a drubbing of the BJD in tribal districts were enough to signal the arrival of the BJP as the main opposition, nudging Congress out. Juxtaposed against the assembly and Lok Sabha seats, the panchayat poll results would have meant that the BJP can win 7 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats and 45 of the 147 Assembly seats.
The victory was enough for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce Odisha as his party’s next battleground in the national executive held in April last year. The party started aggressively poaching leaders from both the BJD and the Congress and tried expanding its base with help of new turncoats. In September last year, BJP national president Amit Shah outlined the party’s game-plan when he unveiled the Mission 120 plan (winning 120 of the 147 assembly seats).
But six months is a long time in politics. The 71-year-old Patnaik — now in the 18th year of his chief ministership — seems to have snatched the initiative, as he quietly reinvents himself to stop the saffron surge in the state.
“The biggest factor in Odisha politics is Naveen himself. The BJP may be expanding its footprint all over the country, but it will find it difficult to beat a politician like Naveen who after four terms in office has an unsullied reputation. Simply attacking him would not get the opposition any votes,” said Brundaban Satpathy, professor of political science in Utkal University.
It was Bijepur, an assembly constituency in the western Odisha district of Bargarh, famous for being the state’s granary, which showcased why Patnaik stands in the way of the BJP’s expansion drive. Buoyed by last year’s performance in the panchayat polls, when it notched up unexpected success, BJP billed the February 2018 assembly by-poll in Bijepur as the semi-final before the 2019 election. After an acrimonious campaign — marred by a slipper attack on the CM, a murderous attack on the kin of BJD minister and a cow dung attack on the house of Patnaik’s private secretary—the BJD won by a massive margin of around 42,000 votes.
While a wounded BJP appears to have withdrawn into a shell after the by-poll defeat, a wily Patnaik has stepped up his efforts to connect to the masses.
Acutely aware that the perception of him being a distant politician fuelled the BJP’s rise in the panchayat polls, Patnaik has been on a people-connect drive, regularly interacting with panchayat functionaries through a programme called Ama Gaon Ama Vikash (My village, my development).
Though it’s a video-conference programme, Patnaik sanctioning funds for development works on-the-spot seems to be a hit with the people. Patnaik has also been routinely overseeing development works and is constantly checking the progress of his pet projects in housing and road infrastructure. Similarly, through a government-funded initiative, ‘Biju Yuva Vahini’ for promoting youth at the grassroots level, the party is using its workers to reach out to people. In the run-up to the 2019 polls, the party will start a Mahanadi Suraksha rally from May 16 covering 15 districts, many of them in western Odisha, where its MPs, MLAs and panchayat-level functionaries would do a soft campaign for the party.
Senior BJD leader and former finance minister, Prasanna Acharya, says BJD’s formidable election machinery in 2019 will ensure the party can stop any possible resurgence of BJP. “They may get Modi to campaign in Odisha and get media mileage through press conferences, but do they have even 147 candidates for the assembly polls? We have functionaries at the lowest levels. Besides, who would they project as chief minister?” asks Acharya.
The BJP leaders, however, brush off the lack of leadership issues and say the party’s biggest problem is strengthening its grassroots. “We have not been able to reach the masses as we should have. But there is still about a year’s time and we are working on a narrative that would appeal to the masses,” said KV Singh Deo, leader of BJP Legislature Party, admitting that the party has lost some steam in the recent past.
Another factor that is likely to help the BJD, is the change of guard in the State Congress. Riven by intense squabbles, the party last month made former state minister Niranjan Patnaik, the state chief.
If the new PCC chief can stem the exodus of Congress votes to rival parties, as happened in Bijepur by-poll, it may hurt BJP more than BJD. If the Congress emerges stronger in the coming months, it may lead to triangular contests in tribal and coastal areas, thus dividing the anti-BJD votes and checking the growth of the BJP. The BJD has been strengthening its ranks with a constant influx of leaders from the Congress and the BJP.
In Patnaik’s home district of Ganjam, the party inducted veteran Congress leader and former union minister Chandrasekhar Sahu and Bikram Panda last month. As the BJD is likely to face anti-incumbency issues in the 2019 polls, the influx of leaders from other parties would take care of some of these issues, but it may also make the party vulnerable to more intra-party squabble.
“How the BJD performs in 2019 would also depend on how the chief minister manages to keep the conflicting interests in check,” said former finance minister and political observer Panchanan Kanungo. “A lot would depend on how BJP performs in Karnataka assembly polls and the ones in Rajasthan, MP and Chhatisgarh. A clear win for the party in Karnataka may turn the tide for the BJP, giving its Mission Odisha further impetus. If the BJP can work on its organisational weakness by then, it would pose a huge challenge for the BJD,” he said.
As things stand today, the odds are stacked against the BJP. But warns BJP national secretary Suresh Pujari : ”If a strong party like the CPM could be routed in Tripura despite having a popular chief minister Manik Sarkar, why can’t the same happen in Odisha? We are doing out work quietly on the ground. The results would be seen next year.”