Chief minister Naveen Patnaik sought to dismiss the BJP’s spectacular show in the Odisha rural polls as a minor hiccup when he spoke to his legislators on Wednesday.
The BJP, a non-entity in this eastern state by the sea till a couple of years ago, has gained about 300 zilla parishad seats in the recent elections. The party won only 36 in 2012.
But the four-term chief minister and BJD leader put up a brave face in front of his MLAs.
“We are still No 1 in Odisha and our MLAs should reconnect with people,” Patnaik said.
The BJD won 460 seats, down by 190 from the previous tally. Official results of the polls are scheduled to be announced on Saturday.
The confidence in his comments hid a deep anxiety that the BJP’s rise in the state has besieged 70-year-old Patnaik and his party managers.
BJD leaders are doubly worried as the regional party has faced near-total decimation in the tribal belts of Kalahandi, Malkangiri and Mayurbhanj.
In the Maoist hotbed of tribal-majority Malkangiri, the party was pushed to an ignominious third position behind runners-up Congress. The voters, who had backed the BJD in previous assembly and panchayat elections, were angry with the state government’s response when hundreds of their children died in a mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis outbreak.
They were already seething over the government allegedly orchestrating mass surrender of tribals in the name of quelling Maoist violence over the past couple of years.
In Kalahandi, last year’s much-publicised image of a tribal farmer walking 10km carrying his wife’s corpse with his daughter in tow was a reflection of the government’s apathy towards the region. The woman died of tuberculosis, a curable disease but rampant in the poor countryside.
Just about two years ago, Kalahandi had elected a BJD MP from the royal family and the party won the five assembly seats in the district.
The punishment was swift. The BJP won 34 of the 36 zilla parishad zones in the district last week, thanks to a silent Modi wave.
“It was all due to Modi,” said Debendra Mohanty, BJP’s state executive member from Kalahandi.
“Demonetisation boosted the party’s image among the poor, who thought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fight against corruption was better than Naveen Patnaik’s rhetoric. More importantly, it has made Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan a credible alternative to Patnaik.”
The poverty bowl of Koraput, Bolangir and Kalahandi (KBK), which Patnaik has been cultivating through a surfeit of schemes for tribals and Dalits over the past decade, deserted the BJD. The BJP cornered about 49% of the 187 zilla parishad seats, a rise of over 1,400% compared to its 2012 performance.
The ruling BJD managed to hold its fort only in Koraput.
The Congress has been wiped out almost everywhere, save for the western district of Jharsuguda.
“We could not fight the combined money power of the BJD and BJP,” said state PCC chief Prasad Harichandan, who has offered to resign.
The BJP’s emphatic show is the result of the party’s two years of groundwork, especially the Centre’s scheme of delivering cooking gas connection to more than 600,000 rural families in the state.
“Unlike the urban areas, in rural Odisha, LPG connection is still a luxury. The scheme with a smiling picture of Modi made a positive impact on the panchayat voters,” said Rabi Das, a political analyst.
Ahead of the 2019 assembly polls, the BJP is planning to give cooking gas to at least 2.4 million poor families in the state.
The BJD organisation has more or less remained static, but the BJP added 3 million new members.
Party’s national joint organising secretary Soudan Singh changed at least 12 district presidents, bringing in new faces and the much-needed vitality to the organisation. Before and during the panchayat elections, the party held at least 50,000 roadside meetings, highlighting alleged failures of the Patnaik government in addressing basic needs such as drinking water, housing, healthcare, education, and employment.
The BJD depended more on the bureaucracy, even asking district collectors for feedback on the party’s winning prospects in the panchayat polls. The district collectors are reported to have conveyed that the BJD would win 90% of the zilla parishad seats.