When change matters, can Congress make the difference in Odisha?
Congress president Rahul Gandhi has finally appointed one of his key aides, former union minister Jitendra Singh, to take charge of the party’s affairs in the state of Odisha.
Singh’s appointment comes at a time when the Congress in Odisha, ridden by factional fights, is on the brink of becoming an irrelevant political force in the state. Its local leaders have been routinely deserting the party and walking into the folds of either chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal or rival Bharatiya Janata Party. More so, after last year’s Panchayat elections that saw the BJP emerge as the main opposition to the BJD and the Congress slip to a distant third position.
Interestingly on Friday, that saw Jitender Singh’s appointment, three local leaders, including a former union minister Chandrasekhar Sahu, announced their resignations from the Congress amid reports that they would be joining the ruling BJD. That fresh round of desertions, in fact, made bigger headlines in the local media than Singh’s appointment.
Odisha goes to polls next year, concurrently with elections to the Lok Sabha. In 2014, the Congress had reported its worst ever performance in the state, winning none of its 21 Lok Sabha seats and bagging just 16 of the 147 assembly seats. Its vote share had slipped to 26% from 29% in 2009 and 35% in 2004. As things stand today, it is expected to do even worse in 2019.
Can Singh help reverse the slide? Can the former MP of Alwar, who has yet to get a grip over the complexities of Odisha’s polity and society, set things in order?
While the challenges Singh faces are undoubtedly many, there are opportunities as well.
The BJP might have edged past the Congress as the principal opposition in the state, but it is far from emerging as a credible alternative to the ruling BJD. It cannot sell its idea of development to voters in Odisha better than chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who excels in innovating with populist welfare measures. It cannot play politics of polarisation in Odisha where Muslims constitute just 2% of the state’s population. Also, its politics of cultural nationalism is anathema to the people of Odisha, who take far greater pride in their language and culture.
In contrast, the Congress is in a position to offer a more credible opposition narrative. Given that it is no longer in power at the Centre, it can also accommodate Odisha’s regional aspirations better than the BJP.
That said, the first and immediate task before Singh is to stop the ongoing exodus from the party, and he seems to be aware of this. Within hours of his appointment, Singh is believed to have contacted Sahu and his aide, Bikram Panda in a bid to persuade them to change their decision to leave the party. He might have been a bit late on this, but the message seems to have gone across. As one local leader of the party told this author that Singh’s appointment has renewed hopes among its rank and file, but he doesn’t have time on his side. He must move quickly to restructure the Pradesh Congress Committee with a new president, put in place a plan for the elections in 2019 and, alongside, build a roadmap to 2024.
Overcoming the leadership challenge
The current lacklusture Congress leadership in the state was to be changed a year ago, after the panchayat elections. Singh had led a team of central observers that visited Odisha last August to assess the party’s affairs in the state and recommend changes. Till date, however, the search for a new, “suitable” leader remains inclusive.
Singh needs to break the impasse without losing time. An interim solution could be to pick one of the 15 MLAs who won in 2014 against the most adversarial conditions the Congress has ever faced in the state, or go by their choice for a new PCC president.
For a solution in the longer run, however, the party will have to work to create new leaders. In the past 18 years that it has been out of power in the state, the Congress stopped attracting new talent. Leaders coming out of student and youth politics mostly joined the ranks of the ruling BJD, drawn either by the lure of power or the image of a clean leader in Naveen Patnaik. But the BJD is now beginning to get too crowded for aspiring politicians. There is an opportunity for the Congress to cash in. If it doesn’t, the BJP will. In fact, the latter is already at it.
To get aspiring politicians into its fold and groom them into future leaders, however, the Congress in Odisha will need a compelling political narrative.
Odisha is in a transition state. The rural (82%)-urban(18%) divide is fast breaking down. While the rural youth have urban aspirations, cities and towns in Odisha are saturating in terms of opportunities. It is probable that, by 2019, Odisha will need an entirely new political narrative, in which neither the BJP or the BJD as they currently stand might have much appeal
2019 will be critical
A section of the Congress believes that it is too late to fix things for 2019 and the party should instead focus on rebuilding its organization for 2024. That will be suicidal.
Even today, if the Congress gets its act together in the state, Odisha could be bracing for a three-cornered contest in 2019. The ruling BJD will gain the most in such a scenario, especially in tribal-dominated areas where the Congress used to be strong but the BJP has lately won considerable influence. A three-way fight also benefits Congress, especially in coastal areas where the BJP has yet to make major inroads.
But if the Congress persists with its complacency any more, the state will slip into a bipolar fight in 2019. It will then be all about BJD and BJP, and analysts would be writing the grand old party’ obituary in one more state that was once its stronghold.