The fear of losing its political space to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Odisha appears to have unnerved the Congress, forcing it to step up efforts to strengthen its organisational structure at the grassroots level ahead of 2019 elections.
For the first time ever, the All India Congress Committee (AICC), the party’s central command, came out with a list of panels for panchayat elections in any state. Usually, these are finalised at the state level in concurrence with the central leadership and then the names are released locally.
A statement by party general secretary Janardan Dwivedi on Friday stated that Congress president Sonia Gandhi has approved the names of party leaders for pradesh election committee, manifesto committee and district in-charges for forthcoming panchayat polls in Odisha.
All senior leaders, including former Union ministers and ex-state chiefs, have been assigned different districts for next year’s panchayat polls.
Having ruled Odisha for several decades since Independence, the Congress has been out of power in the state since 2000 when Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) took over and continues to be in charge. Hemananda Biswal was the last Congress chief minister before the party lost power in 2000.
The Congress’ position as the main challenger to the BJD is being threatened both by the BJP and the new kid on the block - AAP. Riding on the Modi wave, the BJP vote share in 2014 Lok Sabha elections had gone up to 21.5% from 16.89% in 2009 while the Congress’ vote share had dropped to 26% as compared to 32.75% in 2009.
Patnaik’s party swept the 2014 polls winning 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats with its vote share increasing to 44.1% from 37.23% in 2009.
In the assembly elections in 2014, the BJD won 117 of the 147 seats with a vote share of 43.41%. The Congress could win only 16 seats and its vote share stood at 25.74% while the BJP bagged 10 seats with a vote share of 18.02%.
The AAP is pitching itself as a viable alternative in 2019 state polls. Addressing the party’s maiden workers’ meet at Cuttack on Sunday, AAP leader Ashutosh said his party has “a lot of plans” for Odisha. It was six months ago that the AAP planned to strengthen its base in the state and since then has made inroads in some districts, especially in rural areas. But BJD leaders insist that their party’s support base is intact and that the AAP will primarily cut into Congress and BJP votes.
However, the AAP is seeking to corner the government on development issues and alleged corruption with its leaders claiming that Odisha is now considered to be one of the backward states in the country due to the BJD’s “misrule and poor governance”.
The potential threat from AAP has prompted the Congress to take some corrective steps and naming of different panels for the upcoming panchayat elections is a first step towards strengthening its organisational structure across the state. While the pradesh election committee comprises of 36 leaders, including state president Prasad Harichandan and CLP leader Narsingh Midhra, the party also named a nine-member manifesto committee and appointed 30 district in-charges.
On the other hand, the BJP is focusing on the tribal regions to strengthen its base in the state.