Has the Congress returned to battleground Odisha?
Rahul Gandhi’s decision to put one of his most trusted aides, Jitendra Singh, in charge of Odisha and appoint Niranjan Patnaik as the chief of the Pradesh Congress Committee seems to have given exactly the shot that the Congress party needed to revive its fortune.
Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar witnessed an unusual spectacle on Saturday. Daring the hot and sultry weather, nearly 15,000 workers and supporters of the Congress party thronged the Biju Patnaik International Airport to welcome their new leader, Niranjan Patnaik. From there, they took out a five-kilometer-long roadshow to the party’s headquarters, where enthusiasts camped till midnight to listen to the new leadership team.
It was an unusual sight because, in recent times, such shows of political strength in Bhubaneswar have been limited to either the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of chief minister Naveen Patnaik or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is seeking to project itself as the principal opposition in the state. The Congress in Odisha has been in limbo, marred by widespread factionalism, a dysfunctional local leadership, and a steady exodus of workers who have switched to the ruling BJD or the BJP.
Suddenly, things appear to have changed. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decisions to put one of his close aides Jitendra Singh in charge of Odisha and then appoint Niranjan Patnaik as the chief of the Pradesh Congress Committee, seem to have given the party the shot in the arm it needed. Odisha goes to the polls in less than a year, concurrently with the 2019 general election.
Niranjan Patnaik is popular among party workers, resourceful, and a good organiser. A three-time minister in the state government, the 75-year-old is seen as someone who can carry squabbling factions along and turn the party around.
These hopes were on display during Saturday’s roadshow and the meeting addressed by the new leadership. But there is something more to the newfound energy and enthusiasm of Congress workers in Odisha. They are sensing an opportunity in the loss of political momentum for the BJP in recent months.
The Congress party’s image is seeing an upswing nationally and the BJP has taken a beating in Odisha following its defeat in a high-profile bypoll held last month in Bijepur in western Odisha - a relative stronghold for the BJP. Its candidate Ashok Panigrahi could not win even a third of the votes and lost to the BJD candidate Rita Sahu by a margin of more than 40,000 votes. Within weeks of Bijepur, the BJP suffered another setback when it could win only one of the 28 wards in civic body elections in Hindol and Attabira towns in central and western Odisha respectively.
The problem with the BJP, perhaps, is that despite working hard and sharing power in the state for nine years (2000-2009), it hasn’t produced a compelling narrative for the people of Odisha. This could partly hinge on the fact that the BJP is still unable to meaningfully engage with Odisha’s strong regional identity - one that has been shaped more by the politics of assimilation than by aggressively highlighting cultural differences.
As a result, even in 2014, when an unprecedented pan-India wave helped Prime Minister Narendra Modi win a historic mandate, the BJP could win only 10 of the 147 seats in the Odisha assembly with a vote share of 18%. In most adverse conditions, the Congress could still win 16 seats and manage to keep 26% of the votes. The BJD, meanwhile, strengthened its grip further, winning 117 seats.
The Congress finished second in 74 assembly constituencies and the BJP in 36. Importantly, the assembly election was a three-cornered contest but the BJP wasn’t in the reckoning in a majority of the seats, getting less than 30,000 votes in 95 constituencies. The average votes cast were 147,000 per constituency.
In effect, the grand show for the Congress on Saturday might indicate that a return of its rank and file to the party could be in the offing. For the BJP, on the other hand, the newfound vigor within the Congress could spell trouble. There is a possibility that the Narendra Modi- and Amit Shah-led BJP will have to reconsider its game-plan in Odisha. Above all else, it will have to consider if it needs to change its existing leadership in the state. At the moment, it appears to be advantage Congress.
(The author is Editor at Large, Hindustan Times. He tweets as @rajeshmahapatra)
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