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In countdown to 2024, raids now add heat to the Odisha Padampur bypoll

Both parties hope to scavenge Congress votes for unassailable lead in seat that hasn't returned the same party consecutively since 2000, and where victory margins are small

BJD candidate Barsha Singh Bariha (Twitter/DD News) and BJP's Pradip Purohit. (official Facebook account).

The remote Padampur Assembly constituency in Bargarh district is listed as serial No. 1 among the 147 constituencies in Odisha, according to the Election Commission of India. The constituency is now a political hotbed for parties ever since announcement of the by-election following death of its sitting BJD MLA Bijaya Ranjan Singh Bariha.

None of the six Assembly constituencies where by-elections have been held in Odisha since the 2019 general election, saw as much political heat as Padampur is currently witnessing for the December 5 bypoll.

Campaigning by high-profile Union Cabinet ministers, raids on party loyalists by the Income Tax department and the state GST authorities, and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik going on an announcement spree, give the signal that stakes are very high for the ruling BJD and the opposition BJP in the by-election.

On Monday, the Income Tax department conducted dawn-to-dusk raids at residences of three local businessmen who are close associates of the deceased BJD MLA. Hours later, the state GST authorities raided commercial establishments and petrol pumps of local BJP leaders, which was seen as an apparent retaliation to the IT raids.

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Earlier, even before the poll dates were announced, the CM declared a Rs 488 crore package for the constituency. Since then, sops have been raining on the constituency, with announcements like a Rs 200 crore package for drought-hit farmers, sops for the numerous kendu (tendu) leaf workers in the area, land in Puri and Bhubaneswar for Kulta and Meher communities having sizeable numbers in Padampur and a hike in the limit for interest-free loans for women self-help group members, from Rs 3 to Rs 5 lakh.

As the Padampur by-election is seen as a precursor to the simultaneous general and Assembly elections in Odisha due in 2024, the BJD and BJP are leaving no stone unturned to establish an early dominance.

Fresh off its win in the recent Dhamnagar bypoll, the BJP has launched an aggressive campaigning to wrest Padampur from BJD and create a momentum ahead of the 2024 polls.

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Upset over the recent bypoll defeat, the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD that will seek a sixth straight term in the next Assembly poll, has also deployed all its strength to retain Padampur with an impressive margin and to send a message that it’s still the dominant force in Odisha.

While senior Cabinet ministers of the Narendra Modi government like Ashwini Vaishnav and Narendra Singh Tomar have already hit the campaign trail, Union minister and BJPs prominent face in Odisha Dharmendra Pradhan on Tuesday, began seeking votes for the party candidate Pradip Purohit, which is expected to continue till Thursday.

Not to be left behind, over a dozen BJD ministers and 40 ruling party MLAs are skipping the ongoing winter session of the state Assembly and camping in different panchayats of the constituency to ensure victory of the party candidate Barsha Singh Bariha, daughter of the deceased MLA.

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Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who has avoided physical campaigning since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, is set to hit the campaign trail in the constituency on December 2, though details are being finalised.

Padampur, one of the two sub-divisions in Bargarh, is known to be a drought-prone area because of erratic rainfall and lack of irrigation facilities. It shares borders with neighbouring Chhattisgarh. Lack of jobs in the neighbourhood forces people to go on distress migration to other states to work in brick kilns and in other unorganised sectors.

People in Padampur, around 75-km from the district headquarters town, hardly remember when a minister of the state or Union government last visited their locality to review development.

Electoral history has it that the constituency that has never given two consecutive wins to any party since 2000. The winning margin is also very thin in general. In 2019, the late BJD MLA Bijaya Ranjan Singh Bariha won the seat by a thin margin of 5,734 votes, while BJP’s Purohit finished second. It was a reversal of the 2014 verdict, when Purohit had won the seat by 4,513 votes, defeating Bariha.

Although the Congress finished third in both 2014 and 2019, it had secured a sizable 31,179 and 32,787 votes. The Congress is trying to hold on to its voter base by fielding veteran, three-time former MLA Satya Bhusan Sahu. According to political experts, the Congress is unlikely to hold on to its 30,000 votes.

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Like in other states of the country that have a strong regional satrap, the Congress in Odisha is struggling to stay relevant. Like elsewhere, it’s marred by factionalism in Odisha as well, something the BJD and BJP are both trying to take advantage of.

Padampur native Ajit Satpathy, who is an advocate by profession and has been associated with several social organisations in the locality, said both the BJD and the BJP are trying to break into the Congress vote bank to take an unassailable lead.

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“Neither have the Congress governments in the past, nor the present BJD dispensation, has ever tried to improve the situation here, despite Padampur being a backward area. Interior pockets like Paikmal and Jharbandh lack basic facilities like education, healthcare, social infrastructure and irrigation. These factors will be in the voters’ minds when they vote in the forthcoming bypoll,” said Satpathy, who has been voting in the constituency since 1990.

With just a few days left for the campaigning to end, the leaders have pulled out all stops to reach out to the voters as the political slugfest also reaches new peaks with every passing day.

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Union Education Minister Pradhan on Tuesday held roadshows and took on the BJD government while addressing public rallies in the constituency.

“While the government has failed to bring development in Padampur in 22 years, its ministers are promising to resolve decade old problems in 18 months just to mislead the voters,” said Pradhan.

BJDs floor leader in the Rajya Sabha, Sasmit Patra, accused the BJP of importing its electoral violence tactics from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to destroy the peace in Odisha.

First published on: 30-11-2022 at 12:23 IST
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