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After Bijepur bypoll win, Naveen 2.0 could restrict BJP’s march in Odisha elections

With a ninefold jump in seats in the Odisha rural body polls, it seemed that the saffron wave, which chief minister Naveen Patnaik managed to buck in 2014, had finally arrived at his doorstep.

india Updated: Mar 01, 2018 07:15 IST
Debabrata Mohanty
Debabrata Mohanty
Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar
Naveen Patnaik,Odisha,Naveen 2.0
Odisha chief minister and BJD chief Naveen Patnaik waves to supporters after the party candidate, Rita Sahu, won Bijepur by-election, in Bhubaneswar on Wednesday. (PTI Photo)

Just about a year ago in the midst of hectic campaigning for Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took time out at a rally to talk about Odisha, where the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) fortunes was suddenly on an upswing.

With a nine-fold jump in seats in the Odisha rural body polls, it seemed that the saffron wave, which chief minister Naveen Patnaik managed to buck in 2014, had finally arrived at his doorstep. The BJP, which secured 18% vote in the last assembly election, got more than 32% votes in the three-tier panchayat polls, pushing the Congress to a poor third.

Buoyed by the party’s unexpected success in the panchayat elections, especially the drubbing of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in tribal seats and parts of western Odisha, party chief Amit Shah last September set an ambitious plan of Mission 120+(winning at least 120 of the 147 assembly seats).

In April, the party held its national executive meeting in Bhubaneswar where Modi held an impressive roadshow.

But as results of the Bijepur assembly bypoll trickled in on Wednesday, it was clear that Patnaik had been successful in holding off the BJP, at least for now. Bijepur, which elected a Congress MLA for the past three terms, saw the BJD candidate (the widow of the deceased Congress candidate) romp home by a margin of over 41,000 votes.

In February last year, the BJP had swept the zilla parishad polls in the area, leaving the BJD and the Congress behind.

Both the BJP and the BJD had pooled in their resources for the bypoll contest, elevating a regular fight to a personal face-off. And it seems that Patnaik, for whom a loss would have been disastrous, has come out on top for now.

Patnaik reinvented himself over the past year with a well-oiled publicity campaign that painted him as a hands-on leader. Huge billboards sporting Patnaik’s face with slogans “Katha nuhen kathina parishram (not words, but hard work) have come up all over the state.

In May, he dropped a dozen ministers, some of them over alleged non-performance, and drafted them for organisational work. In December last year, he sacked agriculture minister Damodar Rout for his “casteist” remarks against Brahmins. Last month he suspended Baijayant Panda, Lok Sabha MP and his party’s most visible face in Delhi.

Despite acute pain in the neck due to spondolysis, Patnaik travelled through 12 districts and addressed 171 meetings in 2017. He now has more than two million followers on Twitter. Last October, he asked senior IAS officers in the state secretariat to visit districts at least four days a month focusing on 12 key government schemes. With state finances much healthier, he opened his purse strings including a free sanitary napkin scheme for 1.7 million girl students of the state.

“There is an increased energy and focus in the government now,” said BJD MP Pratap Deb. “When the CM is leading the way, there is little time to relax.” The 71-year-old also tried to project himself as a statesman. On Children’s Day, Patnaik addressed more than six million school students in Odia. The 11-minute televised speech was not without flaws, but it was a riposte to his critics.

“His personal image was blemish-free. In the last few months, he has successfully shed his image of a distant politician,” said Prof Satyaprakash Dash, political science professor of Sambalpur University.

BJP Challenge

Even before Bijepur, the BJP faced a set of electoral reverses, including in Nuapara district, where it failed to win a single zilla parishad seat in July 2017, despite being an area represented by state party chief Basant Panda. In Jajpur district, where party chief Amit Shah visited for the booth connect programme, the BJP lost in the local ward election in October 2017.

The BJP’s poll strategy centres around wooing the electorate — half of which is young — by making the 2019 battle a Modi versus Naveen one. It plans to get cadre-ready at the 36,000-odd polling booths by the end of this year, and hopes it can surpass the BJD by focusing on the young and the women, and the dissidence in the BJD.

“The electorate is angry with many of the sitting MLAs and ministers over large-scale corruption. We would make it our poll plank,” said KV Singhdeo, leader of BJP Legislature Party in Odisha Assembly.

Patnaik is aware that the race for 2019 is wide open mainly due to anti-incumbency sentiments against many of his 117 MLAs. “He has to deny tickets to half of his 117 MLAs who have become unpopular in their constituencies,” said former BJD leader Panchanan Kanungo. “But it would also lead to dissidence.”

First Published: Mar 01, 2018 07:14 IST