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Bijepur bypoll: Turncoats hold key in keenly watched contest in Odisha

Both the BJD and BJP have launched high-voltage campaigns in Bijepur where locals say the results will set the tone for the 2019 elections.

india Updated: Feb 19, 2018 07:11 IST
Debabrata Mohanty
Debabrata Mohanty
Hindustan Times, Bijepur
Bijepur bypolls,Bijepur by-poll,Odisha bypolls
Rita Sahu (with marigold garland in her neck) joined the ruling Biju Janata Dal after the death of her husband Subal Sahu, a three-time Congress MLA from Bijepur. The death of Subal Sahu necessitated the bypoll. (Arabinda Mahapatra/HT Photo)

A marigold garland around her neck, Rita Sahu walked through the narrow bylanes of Kevad village in Bijepur assembly constituency limits last Saturday. The 46-year-old barely spoke, but when she did, leaders and activists of Odisha’s ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) kept a close watch.

The 46-year-old is BJD’s candidate for the February 24 Bijepur assembly bypoll, where the stakes are apparently higher than a single seat.

“The real fight here is the proxy war between chief minister Naveen Patnaik and BJP heavyweight and Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan,” said Bipin Meher, a weaver in Bijepur’s Barpali block. “The winner will hype it as a pointer to what is coming in the next assembly polls,” Meher added.

Rita Sahu’s husband, Subal Sahu, a three-time Congress MLA of Bijepur in western Odisha’s Bargarh district, died of cancer in August last year, necessitating the bypoll. Barely months later, the CM chose her as the BJD candidate for the seat.

Her switch to the BJD triggered a BJP counter. Bijepur’s BJD MLA from 2000-2004, Ashok Panigrahi, whom many spoke of as a frontrunner for the party ticket, joined the BJP in October last year.

Ashok Panigrahi, a former Bijepur BJD legislator, joined the BJP to contest the bypoll after he was denied a ruling party ticket. (Arabinda Mahapatra)

Panigrahi was denied the BJD ticket from Bijepur for the 2014 polls and contested as an independent. He lost, but the BJD candidate lost too amid a vote split. All talk of a patch-up fizzled out when the CM picked Rita Sahu. Now, Panigrahi, 60, is the BJP’s candidate.

In sharp contrast to Rita Sahu’s demeanour, and several kilometres away the same day, Panigrahi, 60, met voters in Kothamal village and accused the BJD of embezzling money meant for housing schemes.

More than two dozen senior BJD leaders have parked themselves in Bijepur, around 375 km from state capital Bhubaneswar, since last week. The BJP too has lined up a host of high-profile leaders, including Union minister Smriti Irani, for the campaign.

BJD has a near-invincible record in bypolls since 2000, but the BJP’s win in the zila parishad polls last year has triggered a buzz around Bijepur. In Bargarh district, the BJP won 25 of the 34 zila parishad zones, while in Bijepur it won two of the three zones.

Buoyed by rural poll results, the BJP, which won just 10 assembly seats in the 2014 assembly polls, has mounted a sustained campaign to oust the BJD in the next elections.

Manoj Saha, a youngster in the constituency’s Gaisilat block, believes the equation is fairly simple. “A BJD win will quell questions about four-time CM Patnaik’s popularity, while a BJP win will establish Pradhan as a credible challenger,” he said.

Ear to the ground

Caste equations have never had an impact in Bijepur, where OBCs constitute more than 70% of the 225,000 voters.

Turncoats are expected to be the real influencers in the bypoll. The BJD has reaped the maximum harvest of turncoats from the BJP and the Congress. The ruling party has inducted the BJP district president, Narayan Sahu, and the Congress chairperson and vice-chairperson of Barpali notified area council.

The Congress, which suffered maximum desertions in the run-up to the bypoll, has picked senior party leader Pranay Sahu as its candidate.

“I am a Congress supporter, but may back the BJP this time. In the panchayat polls, many of my neighbours turned to the BJP only because of Modi.”

At Gopeipali village of Barpali block, sarpanch Dambarudhar Bisoi was the first among Subal Sahu loyalists to shift allegiance from the Congress to the BJD. “When he died, we thought it’s better to go with BJD as some development work can be done,” said Bisoi.

The BJP is also winning over some such as Gaisilat primary schoolteacher Arabind Das owing to its biggest draw, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I am a Congress supporter, but may back the BJP this time. In the panchayat polls, many of my neighbours turned to the BJP only because of Modi,” said Das.

Announcements galore

A few months ago, the CM offered a drought package for 70 blocks, including Bijepur. He also announced a Rs 1,246-crore lift irrigation project for Bijepur, which is located at an elevation of 200 metres and is water starved.

Petroleum and natural gas minister Pradhan has announced a Rs 750-crore ethanol plant in Bargarh.

Earlier this month, Union food minister Ram Vilas Paswan announced a relaxation in fair average quality (FAQ) norms for Odisha while procuring paddy from farmers whose crops were hit by unseasonal rains. Paswan acknowledged Pradhan had written to him for this relaxation.

Incidentally, the state government has rejected this, saying it reduces the minimum support price for discoloured paddy.

First Published: Feb 19, 2018 07:10 IST