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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019

Lok Sabha elections 2019: BJD leans on welfare to counter BJP charge

To understand the grip Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik has had over state politics for close to two decades, a gram panchayat (GP) office is a good place to begin.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Mar 29, 2019 06:14 IST
Debabrata Mohanty
Debabrata Mohanty
Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar
(PTI/ Representative Image)
         

To understand the grip Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik has had over state politics for close to two decades, a gram panchayat (GP) office is a good place to begin.

It is late morning and the Kapileswara GP office in Kendrapara district is witness to a steady stream of visitors.

Banita Sutar’s husband died in a road accident eight years ago. The family had then got a compensation of Rs 3 lakh. She is here to collect her monthly widow pension of Rs 300. Sutar is also the president of a self-help group (SHG) in her village. The government, under a scheme called Mission Shakti, empowered SHGs by offering seed money of Rs 15,000, mobile phones and regular training to all members who can then avail of loans at low interest for productive activities from January last year. Suttar also gets 10 kg of rice for Rs 10.

When asked what she thought of Patnaik, she said, “He works for the poor. We are with him.” And what did she think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi? “He is good too.” Between the two, whom would she choose? “Naveen, no doubt.”

 

A little later in the day, Seba Swain of Baro village walks in. He is here to collect his pension. Swain, an agricultural labourer, receives rice at the same subsidised rate, and owns an acre of land. He has applied, under the new Kalia (Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation) scheme, for direct income assistance and is waiting for government support. Swain too is an ardent Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supporter.

Kalia is a direct cash assistance scheme in which an estimated 3.7 million small and marginal farmers would get Rs25,000 as farm assistance over five agricultural seasons for purchase of inputs like seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and labour charges. Besides, another 900,000 landless agricultural labourers would get one-time assistance of Rs 12,500 for agricultural allied activities like livestock, fishery and horticulture-based activities towards livelihood support in three phases. So far over Rs 1,900 crore has been transferred to the bank accounts of farmers as the first instalment of Kalia. In April, another Rs1,900 crore would be given to the farmers.

More than any other group, women voters have been Patnaik’s staunchest supporters since 2000, when he first came to power in the state. Organised under 600,000 SHGs, women voters have given the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) a decisive edge in election after election.

This mix of social welfare and empowerment -- subsidised food, pensions, maternity allowance, support to women SHGs -- has helped construct an image of Patnaik as a pro-poor leader. And, it is this same image that is being challenged by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Its confidence largely stems from a dramatic improvement in its performance in the Panchayat elections in early 2017, which established the saffron party as the primary challenger (The party won 297 zila parishad seats, compared to the BJD’s 473 and the Congress’s 60) and anti-incumbency against Patnaik’s government. The Congress remains the third pole of the polity. “Though there should have been anti-incumbency against Naveen Patnaik after four successive terms, neither BJP nor Congress seem to be ready to match up to him,” said Satya Prakash Das, professor at Sambalpur University.

The challenge

It was back in 2014 that Modi and BJP president Amit Shah decided to focus on the eastern seaboard in general, but Odisha in particular. The calculation was two-fold. The BJP had peaked in north, west and central India; to make up for inevitable losses here, it needed to expand in newer territories in the east. Two, Odisha had seen the same government for four terms. There was no robust opposition. Modi was popular. And, the BJP thought it could make a dent.

The face of this challenge was Union minister and Odisha leader Dharmendra Pradhan. The party focused on organisational expansion and claims to have committees across 36,000 booths. A big section of second and third-rung Congress leaders, particularly at the district level, switched sides. As a signal of importance to the state, it held a major national executive meeting, soon after the Panchayat success and its Uttar Pradesh victory, in Bhubaneswar. It pulled in high-profile, popular figures such as former BJD MP Baijayant Panda, a highly networked politician, former bureaucrat Aparajita Sarangi and senior coastal politician Damodar Rout.

Modi himself has visited the state at regular intervals. In December and January, he travelled thrice to Odisha. BJP president Amit Shah has visited the state twice this year to take stock of the party’s poll preparedness while exhorting party men to root out BJD.

“The state lacked a good opposition. The Congress allowed Patnaik to rule. But he is now thoroughly exposed. The mood is for change. We will not only win the assembly but will pull off a big surprise in the Lok Sabha election,” said Pradhan.

This would be quite a leap, for in 2014, the BJP just won one of the 21 Lok Sabha seats and was third in the assembly, winning just 10 of the 147 seats, with an 18% vote share. The BJD, in turn, won 117 seats with a vote share of 43.41%.

Sarangi, who is the party candidate from the Bhubaneswar seat, has worked closely with Patnaik as a bureaucrat and believes that his term can be divided into pre-2014 and post-2014 phases.

“Earlier, officers on the ground had room to display dynamism and innovate. But there has now been a severe deterioration. The administration is marked by passivity,” she said.

But ultimately, the BJP is riding on what it believes is Modi’s appeal in a state where there is no visible anger against Patnaik. Back in Kendrapara, there were several voters who made a distinction between the assembly election and Lok Sabha election and said they would support Patnaik in the former and Modi in the latter though in the last three elections – 2004, 2009 and 2014 – voters in Odisha have preferred the same party or coalition in the assembly and Lok Sabha polls.

The strategy

Those in the BJD camp scoff at the BJP’s ambitions and are confident of a fifth term for Patnaik. Assembly polls in the state are scheduled to be held on April 11, along with the Lok Sabha polls.

The panchayat elections, admits an official close to Patnaik, was a ‘wake up call’ for the party. “It came after 18 years of being in power. People had got complacent. Leaders had got inaccessible. It prompted a course correction.”

This included Patnaik, under an initiative called Ama Gaon, Ama Bikash (my village, my development) holding weekly video conferences with different villages, sanctioning development projects on the go and deepening his mass connect.

So far, Rs 1,554 crore has been sanctioned for 6,798 gram panchayats.

The government has also begun holding PEETHA (Peoples Empowerment–Enabling Transparency and Accountability of Odisha Initiatives) camps in every gram panchayat - which are meant to make citizens aware of various government initiatives in a festive setting. To mollify women voters, Patnaik announced 33% reservation for women in Lok Sabha candidature.

But the BJD hopes the real ‘game changer’ will be the Kalia scheme. It was prompted by the BJP’s defeat in the three state elections at the end of last year, which was attributed to rural distress and Congress’s promises of a farm-loan waiver, and in contrast, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s (TRS) success in the bordering state of Telangana.

“Under the leadership of Naveen Patnaik, we have entered the hearts and minds of people of Odisha.The so-called challenge from BJP is much ado about nothing,” said senior BJD leader Prasanna Acharya.

There is a third element in Odisha politics - the Congress. It did come second in the assembly polls the last time, but with only 16 seats and 25% vote share. In the panchayat elections, it was reduced to being third with just about 18% votes. New state unit chief Niranjan Patnaik dismisses Kalia as a short-term scheme.

The problem for the party, however, is not just agenda. It has shrunk organisationally and there is deep internal factionalism. Its leaders continue to desert party ranks - and only recently working president and Jharsuguda MLA Naba Das shifted to the BJD while another senior leader, Srikant Jena, was expelled.

At least three other MLAs have quit the party in the last three months. Niranjan Patnaik claims he has been able to stem the decline in the party. “We are the primary challenger to the BJD. The BJP and BJD have a deal.”

It was because of the collapse of Congress that its vote shifted to the BJP in the panchayat elections-- and so a relatively stronger Congress may help the BJD in ensuring anti-Patnaik votes split. At the same time, the weakening of the Congress helps the BJP establish its position as the principal challenger.

First Published: Mar 29, 2019 06:14 IST