Seeking power for the fourth time in Orissa, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik faces one of the toughest elections of his career. As 10 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats and 70 of the 147 assembly seats in the state go to polls on April 10 — and the rest on April 17 — the BJP, riding on Narendra Modi’s popularity, is on the upswing in western Orissa.
Anti-incumbency, and the fact that Pyari Mohan Mohapatra is no longer with him, has made Naveen’s task tougher.
BJD insiders estimate they will be lucky to win 85-90 seats in the assembly, far fewer than the 120-plus projected until a couple of months ago, and fewer than even the 103 the party won last time. Holding on to the 14 Lok Sabha seats may prove difficult too.
State BJP president K V Singhdeo is confident of doing far better than in 2009, when the party won six assembly seats and was blanked in the Lok Sabha polls. The Congress won 6 seats in Lok Sabha and 27 in the assembly. It may lose its main opposition status to the BJP in the assembly this time.
The tight spot the BJD is in is indicated by Naveen’s punishing schedule over the last two weeks, travelling all over southern, coastal and western Orissa. His meetings in several western Orissa districts have been thinly attended.
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Naveen dropped 35 sitting MLAs, including heavyweights such as former finance minister Prafulla Ghadei, to beat anti-incumbency. BJD rebels are likely to hurt him in at least 40-50 constituencies.
Speaking on a hot afternoon in Lebidi, a village of small and marginal farmers in the western Orissa district of Bargarh, the young farmer Mukund Sahoo expressed his frustration with the BJD.
“Naveen Patnaik perhaps thinks he has kept us happy by giving rice at Re 1 per kg. But there is nothing beyond that for me. I have two acres of land, but there is no irrigation. I work as a labourer in other people’s fields. The voltage is so low that our children study by a kerosene lantern,” Sahoo said.
“I have heard of Modi. I think the BJP will win the Lok Sabha polls,” he added. Sahoo voted BJD in 2009.
The subsidised rice scheme for BPL cardholders announced before the 2009 polls — starting at Rs 2/kg, revised to Re 1/kg in February 2013 — helped BJD sweep the assembly and Lok Sabha polls that year. But it no longer satisfies people.
Sahoo’s neighbour Prafulla Singh, who works as a labourer in rice mills around Bargarh town, complained that the rich seemed to be getting richer, while their own situation deteriorated. “I have a BPL card, yet no officer cares for my application for an Indira Awaas house,” he said.
Farmer Nityanand Bhoi said they were forced to sell rice to millers at Rs 200-300 less than the minimum support price. “We don’t have water in our fields. Do you think 25 kg of rice at Re 1/kg is enough for my family?” he said.
The BJP is gaining in the western Orissa constituencies of Sundargarh, Sambalpur, Bolangir and Bargarh. It is also doing well in the coastal Lok Sabha seat of Balasore, a poor cadre base notwithstanding.
At a rally in the steel city of Rourkela last week, a crowd of over a lakh waited patiently for Modi in the searing heat at the aerodrome ground. Modi, who had desisted from taking on Naveen at his Bhubaneswar rally in February, tore into the chief minister. “Why can’t Orissa be the No. 1 state in India? Why are Oriya youths going to Gujarat and other states for jobs? Don’t you want to change the government?” he asked the roaring crowd.
In Badsalia village of Sundargarh’s Lefripada block, young electrical engineering graduate Amit Patel watched Modi’s speech on TV. “For the Lok Sabha, I am very clear on my support,” he said. “I hope the Modi government brings more jobs for graduates like me.”
However, the lack of a credible state leadership to take on Naveen means the BJP’s prospects for the assembly remain bleak. “Both the Congress and BJP went to polls without a leader. While the Congress is losing popularity nationally, the BJP could have gained had it put up better candidates for the assembly and projected a good CM candidate… It could have made things very difficult for the BJD,” political analyst Rabi Das said.
“Lack of organisation and infighting in the Congress will ensure Naveen gets a fourth term, but it definitely won’t be easy for him,” Das said.
A senior BJD leader conceded that a tally of under 100 seats would make Naveen’s next term difficult. “With 100-plus seats he never felt comfortable. If the numbers are restricted to 90, knives will be out for him. A smaller Lok Sabha tally will reduce his leverage in national politics, and expose him to attacks should the NDA come to power,” the leader said.
In 2009, Pyari Mohapatra’s groundwork and candidate selection helped the BJD win in Koraput (then comprising Koraput and Nabrangpur Lok Sabha seats), Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Sundargarh, all tribal-dominated districts in which the Congress and BJP were once strong. The cheap rice scheme proved a gamechanger because of the way Mohapatra oversaw its implementation through the bureaucratic and party machinery.
Mohapatra has now launched his own party, the Odisha Jan Morcha.
Senior BJD leader and health minister Damodar Rout said his party would do well because there was no credible challenger to Naveen for the post of CM in any of the other parties. “BJP has no base in Orissa, and Congress has weakened. People know the welfare schemes of the BJD government. I am sure we will do better than last time,” he said.
Senior Congress leader Sarat Rout, however, said: “Naveen’s so-called clean image has been dented by the Shah Commission report on the mining scam. Congress will definitely gain at the BJD’s expense.”