As I write, three of the five phases of panchayat elections in Odisha have been completed. Few would have cared for these elections but for the big surprise sprung by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Coming from nowhere, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party has won more than 190 seats, or 35%, of 538 seats that have so far polled, and the winning ratio keeps getting better with each round, according to unofficial results. If this trend continues, the BJP will end up winning more than 300 of the 854 zilla parishad seats – almost a 10-fold increase over the 36 seats the party won in 2012 when these elections were last held.
It is a phenomenal feat for a party that has never been a force to reckon with in Odisha politics, which often revolved around two centrist parties – the Congress and the ruling Biju Janata Dal of chief minister Naveen Patnaik. That is why Modi was quick to react. He spoke about the results at a campaign rally in Uttar Pradesh and then tweeted to congratulate his party colleagues in Odisha for the “good work” done.
Naveen’s BJD will still win the most number of seats, but it will have little to celebrate -- because the lead will be so narrow and the message from the voters so unnerving. Also, the effective opposition space in the state will now be taken by a party that rules at the Centre and sets the political agenda for the nation. The outcome of the panchayat elections will shape the course of the state’s politics between now and 2019 when Odisha holds assembly polls simultaneously with parliamentary elections.
Naveen loses TINA card: One message that rings out loud and clear is that Naveen Patnaik is no more invincible, no more infallible; that the voters of Odisha no longer believe there is no alternative (TINA) to his Biju Janata Dal.
A political outsider who was thrust into Odisha politics after his father Biju Patnaik -- a legendary politician and a folk hero – died in 1997, Naveen has never been out of power since winning the state in 2000. His lineage, his image of being not a run-of-the-mill politician and a bachelor with no temptation to hoard wealth made the people of Odisha swoon over him. He came on the political stage at a time when the Congress party, discredited by decades of misrule, had turned rudderless. The lack of an effective opposition meant Naveen had everything going for him to consolidate his power, both within and outside the party.
Also, a good part of Naveen’s tenure overlapped with India’s economic rise and a mining boom in Odisha, which meant more money – by way of both higher central transfers and the state’s own revenues -- for vote-winning welfare programmes such as offering rice to the poor for Rs 2 per kg (later reduced to Re 1/kg) and building rural roads. In cities, the middle class was happy as the service sector was on an upswing. Information technology companies such as Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services set up large operations in the state’s capital, Bhubaneswar, creating lucrative jobs for the local educated youth – many of them have since risen through the ranks to take up US and Europe-based assignments for their employers. The expansion of the IT sector coupled with dodgy money from mining also fueled a realty boom that hugely benefited people living in the urbanizing landscape around the state’s capital and other cities.
All of these kept reinforcing the image of Naveen Patnaik as a leader who stood for development and progress, even though his populist schemes came at the expense of longer-term welfare of the people. Critical sectors such as education and healthcare were neglected, as was investment in agriculture that provides livelihood to more than three-quarters of the state’s population. No one questioned or challenged Naveen, because there was no one to do so. The results of the panchayat elections suggest that may no longer be the case.
In the simmering discontent over unfulfilled aspirations and the growing clamour for an alternative to the current dispensation, the BJP seems to have spotted an opportunity.
Not a flash in the pan: Since Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014, the BJP has assiduously worked to expand its footprint in Odisha. Rarely a month has passed without a central minister visiting the state. As PM, Modi has gone there four times.
The narrative built through these visits goes something like this: the BJP cares for Odisha; money for Naveen’s welfare schemes come from the Centre; and the state has very little to show for his 17 years in power.
The success in the panchayat polls shows the strategy has worked and the BJP has been able to build a well-entrenched organisation at the grassroots. Its ambitions have been helped by a steady disintegration of the Congress party, which has now been pushed to the margins of Odisha politics -- thanks to the lack of a leader who can steer the party’s local unit. The whimsical decisions of the central leadership of the Congress in choosing local leaders and frequently changing them have only made it worse for the party, which once ruled the state with a brute majority. I will keep it for a later date to elaborate on this.
For now, the BJP has effectively snatched the opposition space from Congress. The assembly elections in the state may be two years away, but Naveen already has a fight on his hands.
(An abridged version of this article appeared in Hindustan Times on February 19)