What is wrong with the Congress? For one last time, I thought of asking that question just as the party had to bite the dust in yet another election – the panchayat polls in Odisha. According of the unofficial results, the Congress won just 66 of the 849 zilla parishad seats where elections were held, while the BJP saw its tally grow nearly 9-fold from 36 in the last elections to 306, riding on the growing dissatisfaction against chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal.
The BJD still won the majority of seats, but with a narrower margin compared to 2012 when it had won 651 seats.
Last week, I wrote about how the BJP catapulted itself from a marginal player in Odisha’s politics to taking the effective space of principal opposition. In this edition of Deep Cut, I look at why and how the Congress not only missed the opportunity, but also precipitated its decline in the state that it once ruled for decades.
There can be no better example than Odisha to demonstrate the 3D syndrome — denial, delusion and degeneration — that has been ailing India’s grand old party.
The first signs of the Congress losing ground in Odisha came ironically with its winning the state elections in 1995 with a slender majority and a vote share less than 40% in a mostly bipolar contest. Janaki Ballabh Patnaik became the chief minister, but he never enjoyed the confidence of the party’s central leadership, which wanted to promote a tribal leader.
The intent was noble, but no politician from western Odisha had evolved enough to provide effective leadership at the state level. Patnaik was replaced by Giridhar Gamang, a nine-time MP from Koraput, but he failed to administer the state as also to counter the formidable opposition that was building up through an alliance of the BJP and BJD. The latter would then go on to deliver a humiliating defeat to the Congress in the elections held a year later, 2000, marking the beginning of a downhill journey that got worse with each passing election in the state.
Sample this: Between 2000 and 2014, the party’s vote share in the Odisha assembly elections has steadily fallen from 35% to 25%, its local leadership has changed as many as seven times and not one leader has emerged to be considered a potential chief minister. Its strength in the 147-seat assembly has dwindled to just 16 and it couldn’t get a single MP elected from any of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha. The number of assembly seats in which its candidates forfeited their deposits increased from seven in 2000 to 40 in 2014, meaning in one out four assembly seats the party couldn’t win one-sixth of the votes polled.
And all this while, the party has been in a state of denial and delusion, letting degeneration set in. Its leaders neither understand the politics of the state nor have they cared to fix the issues flagged by local party workers. The outcome of the panchayat polls showed that the rot has set in at every level. If Naveen Patnaik took advantage to expand his party’s footprint in the past one-and-a-half decades, it is now the BJP’s chance to make the most of it.
As a disillusioned Congress worker from the state told this writer, people in Odisha are ready to vote against Naveen, but you need to ask them to vote for you and there is no one from the Congress to ask for votes. That is a story that holds true for the Congress not just in Odisha but in many parts of the country.
The author is Chief Content Officer, Hindustan Times.
Follow the author @rajeshmahapatra