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Though it is still early days, BJP leaders in Odisha can’t remember the last time they were so happy. Two days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election rally at Uttar Pradesh congratulated the party for the success in the first two phases of the polls of the three-tier panchayat polls. With the Congress pushed to third position in the state and the ruling Biju Janata Dal leaders grudgingly admiring the rise of BJP as an alternative, suddenly everyone is taking note of the rise of BJP.
Of the 854 zilla parishad seats in the three-tier panchayatiraj system, election which are contested on party symbols, BJP has so far won 129 seats of the 364 seats that went to the polls in the first two phases starting from February 13. The BJD is still at the top of the pole but with a reduced margin of 200 seats while the Congress is in a dismal third position with 27 seats. The national party is expected to add another 60-odd ZP seats from the 175 seats that went to polls today in the third phase. Elections to the remaining 315 seats would be held on February 19 and 21 with State Election Commission officially declaring results of the polls on February 23.
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But with the counting of ballot papers being done in each of the polling booths in the presence of agents of different political parties, the official declaration is now just formality. If BJP keeps its current trend of winning , it may win around 330-340 seats, an all-time high for it in the panchayat polls. In 2012 poll, it managed to win just about 36 seats in its worst-ever performance.
Just five years ago, the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD had swept the panchayat polls, getting over 77 per cent of the 854 seats in 30 zila parishads. In comparison, BJP won a meagre 2 per cent while Congress managed 13 per cent. The regional party too peaked its performance in 2014 assembly polls, winning 119 of the 147 seats in the assembly and 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats.
But if the 2017 panchayat poll results are to be taken into account, the slide of the regional party may have started.
“The voters have shown a mirror to the BJD. It’s beginning of the end of BJD rule in Odisha,” claimed Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan who spearheaded the party’s panchayat poll campaign in the state.
BJD leaders, dismissive of the BJP’s performance, say it is flash in the pan. “The BJP has won in a few zones. It is like dengue fever. It doesn’t kill you and if treated at the right time it can be cured,” said Excise and Cooperation Minister Damodar Rout.
But despite the sarcasm by the BJD leaders what has not gone unnoticed that the panchayat poll results are a huge wake-up call for the regional party that is governing the state uninterrupted since last 17 years. Several political analysts point out that despite being an urban-centric party, BJP’s electoral success in panchayat polls proves that the winds of change are blowing.
The results of the panchayat polls has deeply embarrassed several heavyweight ministers in the Naveen Patnaik government. In Kalahandi, the BJD could not win a single seat from the 18 zilla parishad seats that went to the polls in the first two phases, sinking the political fortunes of urban development minister Pushpendra Singhdeo. The BJP won all the 18 seats and now needs just one more seat from the remaining 18 seats that go to polls from today to form the zilla parishad.
In Mayurbhanj, sports minister Sudam Marandi got a major shock with the BJP on its way to get a majority in the zila parishad. In Kendrapara, once BJD’s pocketburough, BJP has won 8 of the 14 seats that went to polls while the other six were grabbed by the BJD bringing much embarrasment to leaders like Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak and Bed Prakash Agawal. In Bolangir too, BJP has done well by getting 10 of the 13 seats that went to polls, drubbing the political fortunes of father-son duo of BJD’s Rajya Sabha MP AU Singhdeo and Lok Sabha MP Kalikesh Singhdeo.
In Badamba area of Cuttack, school and mass education minister Debi Prasad Mishra lost all the three zila parishad seats to the BJP while in Nayagarh district, powerful law minister Arun Sahoo may have to explain the party’s poor performance with BJP winning 4 of the 8 seats that went to polls.
The BJP is hopeful that the party will gain control of the zila parishads in 6 of the 30 districts, a huge improvement from its dismal performance in the 2012 polls. The party has now achieved its primary objective of replacing the Congress as the main opposition party.
While the win has booosted the morale of the BJP cadres, it has also settled the leadership issue in the party and lack of alternative to Naveen. Dharmendra Pradhan, who got chief minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh and Jharkhand CM Raghubar Das to campaign in bordering Odisha districts of the two states last week, led the campaign from the front touring several districts every weekend. Though the BJP has not projected him as CM face, Pradhan’s position as party’s probable CM face is very evident. The party also hopes to cash in on the rising resentment against the Naveen Patnaik government by projecting him as the youthful alternative to the BJD chief.
For BJP, the results have come not just as a shot in the arm before next year’s civic body polls, it also has made them believe the possibility of making a real bid for power in the 2019 assembly polls. Though still uable to make a dent into BJD votebase in coastal Odisha, the party leadership believes the success in the panchayat polls will lead to many second-rung BJD leaders leaving the party for the BJP. The party is in the process of recruiting around 8,000 booth-level workers to shore up its electoral muscle.
For Modi too, the panchayat poll results holds out lots of hopes. In 2019, BJP may not win as many seats as it won in 2014 polls from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. To make up for the loss of seats elsewhere, Modi would need a good performance in 2019 Lok Sabha election in Odisha.
“We are raring to go. If you were surprised by the success of BJP in panchayat polls, then be ready for more surprises in 2019 polls,” said Sajjan Sharma, spokesman of BJP.