Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Balasore in Odisha early next week, his third trip to the state in less than five months.
Officially, Modi’s planned trip is to address a public rally marking two years in office, but his repeated visits to a state where the BJP has little presence has sparked wild speculation.
Often called the “soul of incredible India”, Odisha has emerged as a favoured destination for both Modi and his ministers.
Some 40 Union ministers travelled to the state since the NDA came to power in 2014. Many of them, such as the Prime Minister, have visited the state more than once.
The frequent high-profile visits have set tongues wagging. “Howsoever improbable it may be, it appears the BJP is dreaming of winning the state in the 2019 polls,” columnist Rabi Das said.
The BJP made a historic debut in the Northeast with a massive victory in Assam this May but it has found the going tough in other eastern states. The saffron alliance was crushed by the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad combine and a Mamata Banerjee wave swept it aside in West Bengal.
In Odisha too, the party has just 10 MLAs in a house of 147 and is not even the principal opposition.
But it is looking at the state as a rare oasis to grow in eastern India on the back of anti-incumbency against the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD).
“Chief minister Naveen Patnaik is in his fourth term and his BJD is likely to accrue anti-incumbency. He is also reportedly not keeping a good health. All this does hand the BJP a window of opportunity,” Das said.
Leading the charge of central ministers is petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who is from Odisha. Lauded publicly by Modi at a rally, Pradhan is seen to be a presumptive chief-ministerial candidate. He is in the state every second week, if not every week, to attend someone’s family function, or inaugurate a school or for chairing some official function.
“We do not miss Muku Bhai,” a party man said referring to the minister’s nickname. “He goes to Delhi only to return to Odisha.”
The BJP isn’t divulging its plans. “The Prime Minister’s visit to Odisha is in tune with his Look-East policy,” state BJP president Basant Panda said.
But political commentators think the policy is a carefully crafted strategy to expand the party’s footprint. Dozens of NDA ministers are, therefore, emulating Modi in visiting Odisha.
Agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh was in the state in April. As were railway minister Suresh Prabhu and his deputy Manoj Sinha. Others who visited Odisha in recent months include health minister JP Nadda, water resources minister Uma Bharti, human resource development minister Smriti Irani, steel and mines minister Narendra Singh Tomar and urban development minister M Venkaiah Naidu.
The list is long and does not include BJP president Amit Shah, who came in January to address a political rally.
“The visits are for raising the BJP’s profile in Odisha,” former legislator Balgopal Mishra said.
The ruling BJD disagreed. Party spokesperson Pratap Deb insisted the BJP was not a force to reckon with in the state.
Undeniable though is the party’s focus on the state. In between the ministerial visits, the NDA government recently decided to celebrate the birth centenary of Odia icon and former chief minister Biju Patnaik. For the BJP, making the right overtures matter for now.