Odisha: BJP causing chinks in BJD bastion

The saffron party has constantly been making steady gains in Odisha since the BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik dissolved his party’s 10-year-old alliance with the BJP a decade ago

Representative Image (Social Media)
Representative Image (Social Media)

Sandeep Sahu

Jay Panda was spot on when he said the other day that the BJP is the only party that is growing in Odisha while the other two major parties – BJD and Congress – are both going downhill. What the state BJP vice president and party candidate in the Kendrapara Lok Sabha constituency had said has now been endorsed by the results of the general elections.

The saffron party has been making steady gains in the state since BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik unexpectedly and unilaterally dissolved his party’s 10-year-old alliance with the BJP on the eve of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

Caught completely off guard by the sudden development barely weeks before the election, the BJP managed a modest 16.89 per cent vote share in 2009 and drew a blank in the Lok Sabha election. But its share of the votes went up to 21.5 per cent by 2014 even though it could win just one seat out of the 21 – Jual Oram in Sundargarh. And now, a quantum jump in its vote share over 2014 proves that its performance in the three-tier panchayat elections, when it won an impressive 33 per cent of the vote and pushed the Congress to the third position for the first time, was no fluke.

As for the BJD, it is now clear that it had peaked in 2014 and could go only downwards from thereon. Its vote share zoomed to an all-time high 44.1 per cent, nearly 6 per cent more than what it got in 2009, in the Lok Sabha elections and gave it 20 out of the 21 seats in the state. BJD’s performance in the assembly elections, held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections, was no less impressive. Its vote share jumped from 38.8 per cent in 2009 to 43.4%, which gave it 117 seats in the 147-strong assembly. The drop in the vote share this time is vindication of what has been in evidence for some time now. After four successive terms in office, the party has started fraying at the edges with nothing but Naveen Patnaik’s charisma to sell itself.

In 2014, the BJD supremo was at the height of his popularity and managed to do the seemingly unthinkable by stopping the Modi juggernaut at the borders of Odisha. Despite the Modi wave sweeping the rest of the country, the BJP managed no more than a solitary Lok Sabha seat and just 10 in the Assembly.

In an ironic twist, it is Modi who is having the last laugh this time. The craze for the BJP icon was visible, audible and easily discernible across Odisha right through the campaign last month. But ask these new supporters, the youth in particular, what is it about Modi that impressed them and the answers are varied – and often vague. But going by a majority of the responses, it seems the tide perhaps turned after the Balakot airstrike.

What the BJP did was nothing short of an airstrike. It was a virtual blitzkrieg with top national leaders of the BJP air-dashing to Odisha in droves with the Big Two – Prime Minister Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah – leading the charge. Both Modi and Shah were relentless, addressing dozens of rallies and holding several road shows during the campaign. Party leaders from the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh pitched in with men and material. Right through the election, it was clear that the BJP was going for the kill this time.

And this killer instinct was precisely what was missing in the Congress. Party chief Rahul Gandhi did get very good response when he toured the state a few times in February and March. But at the height of the campaign, he was missing in action. One of his scheduled visits was first postponed and then cancelled and another was actually cancelled outright. He did address a rally finally, but only at the fag end of the campaign. By then, the bickering over ticket distribution had reached fever pitch and the party had become rudderless and listless. Much of the gains made by the BJP in this election came at the expense of the Congress though it is clear that it has also cut into the BJD’s vote share to an extent.

Where the BJP perhaps failed was in presenting an alternative to Naveen Patnaik in terms of a leader. While Union Petroleum  minister Dharmendra Pradhan is the ‘unofficial’ CM face of the party, man-to-man, he doesn’t quite match up to Naveen, who appears to have cast a spell of sorts on the people.

On its part, Naveen Patnaik fought valiantly – and almost single-handedly against the might of the BJP. The odds were heavy this time. A degree of anti-incumbency after 19 years in office, the arrogance of many of its leaders, serious corruption charges, the exit of many leaders from the party. If he has managed to give a tough fight to the BJP and held his own, it just goes to show that he is still a force to reckon with despite his failing health.

But the first signs of decay in the party are clearly visible and Naveen has to show that he can pull it back to the preeminent position in state politics that it enjoyed in 2014. For that, the party has to reinvent itself under his leadership.

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