For a party that was long-ridiculed as the ‘signboard party’ in Odisha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory message at an election rally at Kannauj on Wednesday must have come as music to BJP leaders in the state.
Had it not been the unexpected success of the party in the first two phases of the panchayat elections, Modi would perhaps never have thought of Odisha in the midst of an election rally in Uttar Pradesh.
“The results have proved (that) the ground beneath Naveen is slowly slipping away. We are on our way to be the alternative to BJD,” said Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, referring to the ruling Biju Janata Dal.
Though it would still take a lot of hard work before the BJP can knock out the BJD, the 20-year-old regional party’s tentacle-like hold over Odisha’s rural areas seems to have taken a huge beating.
Just five years ago, the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD had swept the panchayat polls, getting over 77% of the 854 seats in 30 zila parishads, the top-most level of the three-tier panchayati raj system. In comparison, the BJP won a meagre 2% while Congress managed 13%.
The zila parishad polls, fought on party symbols, are generally considered the barometer of a party’s popularity ahead of the next assembly or Lok Sabha elections.
But cut to 2017, of the 360-odd zila parishad seats -- results of which have been unofficially announced so far – the BJP has won about 130, a little more than one thirds. The BJD is still ahead with more than 200 seats while the Congress has won 27 seats.
The gulf between the BJD and the BJP seems to have narrowed considerably and is expected to narrow down further in the next three phases of elections ending on February 19. The results have not just made the BJP the number two party in the state, relegating Congress to a poor third, but it has also opened up tantalising prospects for the party to have a real shot at power in the assembly polls due in 2019.
“The results of the first two phases have made it clear that it’s a vote for change. What is definitely clear is that people have chosen BJP to be an alternative to BJD. With elections to the assembly about two years away, it is now clear who is going to be an alternative to BJD,” said political analyst Rabi Das.
“What is significant is that a supposedly urban-centric party like BJP has done well in panchayat polls. BJP has also made it amply clear that (Dharmendra) Pradhan is going to be the party’s CM face in next elections.”
The results of the panchayat polls have shocked several heavyweight ministers in the Patnaik government.
In Kalahandi, where the photo of hapless tribal Dana Majhi carrying the body of his wife on his shoulders made headlines in August, the BJD has been just been wiped out.
The BJP won all the 18 zila parishad seats that went to polls, sinking the political fortunes of urban development minister Pushpendra Singhdeo and Congress leader Bhakta Charan Das.
In Mayurbhanj, sports minister Sudam Marandi got a major shock with the BJP on its way to get a majority in the zila parishad.
In Bolangir too, the reign of father-son duo of Rajya Sabha MP AU Singhdeo and Lok Sabha MP Kalikesh Singhdeo seems to have come to an end with the BJP cruising ahead towards majority.
In Badamba area of Cuttack, school and mass education minister Debi Prasad Mishra lost all the three zila parishad seats to the BJP. In Nayagarh district, the saffron party has surged ahead much to the embarrassment of powerful law minister Arun Sahoo.
From what it seems, the BJP would probably gain control of the zila parishads in four of the 30 districts, a huge improvement from the 2012 polls. The party is expected to win at least 40% of the 854 zila parishad seats, up from 2% seats that it won in 2012.
The BJD, however, dismissed the surge in BJP’s fortunes as a flash in the pan with cooperation minister Damodar Rout saying the state’s ruling party can puncture the opposition party’s balloons in no time.
“It was our disgruntled leaders who helped BJP. Beside where is BJP in coastal districts?” asked Rout.
Pradhan, who spearheaded the party in the panchayat polls, agrees the party’s weakness in coastal areas, but said it was a matter of time before the party makes inroads.
“No one gave us a chance in these panchayat polls. Wait till the 2018 civic body polls and 2019 assembly polls,” he said.