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In Naveen vs Modi, BJD targets west Odisha, wields schemes, new faces

For Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD), looking at a fifth shot at power, it’s a fierce fight to protect its citadel against the BJP, that is pushing aggressively to increase its footprint. The Congress, which had dominated Odisha for decades, is, meanwhile, is in a desperate bid to remain relevant.

Written by Liz Mathew | Balangir |
April 5, 2019 12:13:42 am
In Naveen vs Modi, BJD targets west Odisha, wields schemes, new faces PM Modi greets BJP candidate Rita Rani Bagarti in Kalahandi (File photo)

Amid a heavy drizzle, Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo walks briskly towards a platform raised in a half-constructed building. “I was supposed to be here at 12.30 and it is 4 pm. Sorry, I made you wait,” he tells the small crowd gathered in Kalibona village in his Balangir constituency. “But I assure you, my party and government won’t be late fulfilling their promises. Hasn’t Naveen Patnaik fulfilled his promises, unlike Narendra Modi?”

Singh Deo, who has represented Balangir parliamentary constituency, an erstwhile princely state, since 2009, drops Chief Minister Patnaik’s name often to ask voters to choose between him and his own sister-in-law Sangeeta Singh Deo, a former BJP MP. Sangeeta, for her part, invokes PM Narendra Modi.

In Odisha — for both the 147 Assembly seats and the 21 Lok Sabha constituencies — it’s Naveen Patnaik vs Narendra Modi in 2019. For Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD), looking at a fifth shot at power, it’s a fierce fight to protect its citadel against the BJP, that is pushing aggressively to increase its footprint. The Congress, which had dominated Odisha for decades, is, meanwhile, is in a desperate bid to remain relevant.

The BJD had swept the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, winning 20 of the 21 Lok seats and 44.08 per cent of the votes. The Congress managed 25.97 per cent votes and no seats, and the BJP 1 seat and 21.55 per cent votes. However, in the 2017 local elections, the BJP had won 300 panchayats, pushing the Congress to third position.

That the BJP still has a large gap to cover is clear from the fact that in at least 95 of the 147 Assembly constituencies, the BJP had got less than 30,000 votes in 2014, of the total 1.5 lakh-1.6 lakh polled votes.

So far, the ever-underestimated Patnaik has proven a match for the BJP. With much of the BJP surge seen in western districts — which border Chhattisgarh, that was ruled by the BJP for three terms, till recently — Patnaik has tried to tap into the Congress votes by inducting almost every Congress leader of influence in the region. Patnaik also inducted long-time RSS pracharak Subhash Chouhan, who helped the BJP grow in western Odisha, less than 48 hours after the BJP denied him Bargarh ticket. He has been made BJD in-charge of Bolangir, Bargarh and Kalahandi constituencies. Many admit that BJP Bargarh candidate Suresh Pujari would face a tough contest against BJD leader and Rajya Sabha member Prasanna Acharya.

In Naveen vs Modi, BJD targets west Odisha, wields schemes, new faces Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. (File photo)

In the Bijepur Assembly by-election held after the panchayat elections, the CM had deployed the might of the BJD, ensuring a win by a thundering majority. Now, Patnaik has announced that he would be contesting from Bijepur apart from his traditional Hinjili.

BJD leader Pinaki Mishra said the CM’s decision to contest from Bijepur would tilt the situation in favour of the party.

To try and deny the BJP the anti-incumbency advantage, Patnaik has also dropped almost every sitting MP. While Dhenkanal MP Tathagata Satpathy announced he was quitting politics, Singh Deo from Balangir, Pinaki Mishra from Puri and Bhartruhari Mehtab from Cuttack are the only ones who have been retained.

According to political observer and former journalist Rajesh Mahapatra, Patnaik can afford to do this as his is essentially a one-man party. “An overwhelming part of Odisha was under princely states. Odia people are happy with small things and aspirational politics has never been very strong. Here, Naveen Patnaik comes across as a benevolent king,” said Mahapatra, who has floated a forum, Odisha Alochana Chakra, seeking to reshape political debates.

The BJP and BJD are also pitted against each other scheme for scheme. Against Modi’s welfare initiatives, Patnaik has around 60 programmes covering the poor. These include Mamata (cash transfer scheme for lactating and pregnant mothers), Re 1 rice scheme, Ahar Yojana (cooked meal for Rs 5), Biju Pacca Ghar Yojana (housing for poor) and KALIA scheme for farmers. “Whoever gives us more money, we will vote for him,” Padmini Bagh, a housewife in Akriapadar village in Bolangir constituency, is clear.

The BJD government is also credited with building one of the strongest networks of Self Help Groups for women in the country. Having announced 33 per cent quota for the Lok Sabha tickets for women, the BJD has fielded an SHG member, Pramila Bisoi, from Aska.

What also helps the ruling party is its formidable political machinery, going down to the grassroots. While the BJD network has been sustained with sub-contracting for government schemes, the BJP support base is scattered.

But the BJP, that has identified Odisha as a new catchment area for the possible losses it could face in the Hindi heartland, is hoping Modi’s popularity and its national security pitch would see it through. Like in other states, the voters are willing to see the Lok Sabha polls as a referendum on Modi. Said Haldipali resident Prahlad Rana, “For MLAs, it’s BJD, but for MPs, it’s BJP.” The party candidates in Kendrapara, Dhenkenal, Sambalpur, Bargarh, Kandamal, Keonjar and Bhubaneswar seats are expected to put up a good fight.

The Congress, which appears to have ceded the second place slot in the state to the BJP, is yet to get into full electioneering mode, though the big Chhattisgarh win briefly lent a spring in its steps. A clear sign is the lack of buzz around even Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s showstopper promise of minimum wage guarantee.

Where the party has made some gains is among the farming community, which is impressed by the Congress’s farm loan waiver and higher MSP for crops in Chhattisgarh. Lingaraj, the convenor of the Paschim Odisha Krushak Sanghatan Samanyay in Bargarh, said, “The distress among farmers has made some consider the Congress also. Wherever the Congress has a strong candidate, farmers could vote for it. In other areas, we have asked farmers to vote for NOTA.”

Samarendra Mishra, Congress candidate from Balangir Assembly constituency, said, “The Congress won Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh with farmers’ support. The BJD in the state and BJP at the Centre have proved disastrous for farmers. So they will support the Congress.”

However, even Mishra, whose father Narasingha Mishra is the leader of the Opposition, conceded the party is “late”. “We have been harping on the loan waiver and high MSP. We need to see that minimum wage guarantee is also encashed,” Mishra said.

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