Odisha will hold Assembly elections along with the Lok Sabha polls. While Naveen Patnaik will hope for a fifth consecutive term as Chief Minister, the BJP and the Congress will bank on anti-incumbency against 19 years of BJD rule. Both national parties also see scope for adding to their strength in Parliament from the 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha, of which 20 were won last time by BJD.
What are the main issues at play?
The state is largely rural and about 60% of its population depend on agriculture. Farmers are expected to cast a decisive vote. In 2017, Odisha saw farmer suicides after pests attacked their paddy crop. Farmers have flagged their main issues as distress sales of paddy well below the minimum support price of Rs 1,750 per quintal, spurious pesticides, lack of cold storage, and debt.
Women’s insecurity too has emerged as an issue. Last year, a girl in Koraput committed suicide weeks after alleging gang-rape by paramilitary personnel. In April, the death of a six-year-old girl after a rape-and-murder attempt in Salipur (Cuttack) horrified the state. In December, the accused in a gang-rape and murder in Puri district were let off by a lower court for lack of evidence, leading to allegations by the Opposition of political interference, followed by the resignation of minister Pradeep Maharathy, the local MLA.
Anti-incumbency is very strong. Many MLAs of the BJD, which has a brute majority, are unpopular in their constituencies; even BJD MPs are upset with MLAs in their areas. Corruption is another issue: the BJP has been reviving the issue of chit fund scams, targeting some BJD leaders by name, besides occasional references to scams in the mining sector. Odisha’s tribal population, at around 23%, hold a key vote.
How are the three major parties making their strategies?
BJD: To combat anti-incumbency, the party has announced a series of schemes – Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana (health assurance), Biju Pucca Ghar Yojana, state Food Security Act, Ama Gaon Ama Bikas. Party insiders expect that a significant number of sitting MLAs will be dropped, but this could lead to rebellion. To address farmers’ anger, the Odisha government in December announced the Rs-10,180-crore KALIA scheme for direct benefit transfer to farmers and landless farm labourers.
Congress: Recently, Rahul Gandhi held three rallies in Odisha. The Congress promise to raise MSP to Rs 2,600 per quintal of paddy has caught the attention of farmers. While Naveen has ruled out waiving loans, the Congress and the BJP have separately promised to do so. Several farmers told The Indian Express that they are aware that a Congress government in Chhattisgarh immediately implemented an MSP of Rs 2,500 and a loan waiver. The Congress has started bringing in Chhattisgarh leaders such as Bhupesh Baghel and T S Singh Deo to campaign in Odisha.
Rahul’s promise to strengthen land acquisition safeguards and rigorously implement the PESA (Provisions of the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act has also caught the interest of tribal voters. Party sources say the Congress is in talks with parties such as CPI, CPI(M), JMM.
BJP: It is building its plank on women’s security and corruption. Its state unit has built a network of strong women leaders who are campaigning on women’s security. BJP leaders say the Centre has invested Rs 2.36 lakh crore in projects in Odisha, compared to Rs 1.06 lakh crore during UPA-II. Party leaders claim the Ujjwala scheme has found traction in the BJD’s “fortress of women voters”.
The BJP has relentlessly attacked the BJD on corruption issues around the Hockey World Cup, chit funds and “percentage commission” culture. Also, leaders say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal alone may bring in 5-7 Lok Sabha seats, although voters may still vote for BJD in the state elections.
To woo tribal voters, the BJP recently held its National Tribal Maha Adhiveshan programme in Odisha, attended by BJP tribal leaders from across the country. BJP president Amit Shah listed the Centre’s contribution towards raising MSPs for forest products, higher budgetary allocation for tribals compared with what the UPA had allocated, and political empowerment by making tribals CMs, MPs and MLAs.
How are the BJD’s equations with the two national parties?
In the last five years, Naveen has backed Modi on demonetisation in 2016, congratulated the Army for the surgical strike, and hailed GST in 2018. He supported the NDA choice of Ram Nath Kovind as President, did not attend the swearing-in ceremony of H D Kumaraswamy in Karnataka or Mamata Banerjee’s maha gathbandhan rally of non-NDA leaders, abstained from a no-confidence vote in Lok Sabha, and has not attacked the BJP on the Rafale deal.
In recent rallies in Odisha, the PM has not targeted Naveen Patnaik or the BJD by name. While a section of BJD leaders foresee the possibility of seeking BJP support if they fall short of a majority in the Assembly, which would tie BJD MPs with the NDA, BJP leaders have stressed that they want to form the Odisha government on their own.
Congress leaders, on the other hand, say a coalition with the BJD is politically impossible. “In Odisha, BJD is the inheritor of a long-standing opposition to the Congress that started with Utkal Congress (1969), moved to the Janata Party (1990s) and was then reborn with the BJD (1997),” said former BJD finance minister and present Congress member Panchanan Kanungo. “On the other hand, Naveen Patnaik served in the Vajpayee cabinet and ruled Odisha from 2000 to 2009 in alliance with the BJP”.