It is a house on fire right now. The ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which has emerged the clear front-runner in most pre-election surveys, is currently busy fire-fighting after the announcement of the first list of party candidates for the simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly polls in Odisha on March 20. The rate at which BJD leaders are quitting the party or openly raising the banner of revolt and threatening to contest as rebel candidates has left the fire-fighters at their wit’s end.
Already, three sitting MPs – Balabhadra Majhi (Nabarangpur), Arka Keshari Deo (Kalahandi) and Pratyusha Rajeswari Singh (Kandhamal) – and four sitting MLAs – Trinath Gomango (Gunupur), Sukanta Nayak (Nilagiri), Purna Chandra Nayak (Dasapalla) and Debaraj Mohanty (Aska) - have resigned from the BJD after missing out on the party ticket.
There are definite indications that several more could follow suit in the days ahead. With the candidates for the third and fourth round of elections still to be named, the fire is all set to spread even further.
The revolt is particularly strong in constituencies where imports from other parties, primarily Congress, have been fielded as BJD candidates. Naba Das (Jharsuguda) and Jogesh Singh (Sundargarh), who left the Congress and joined the BJD just a few days ago, walked away with the coveted ticket, leaving a whole lot of BJD leaders seething with anger.
The same was the case with former Union minister Chandra Sekhar Sahu and Bikram Panda, who left the Congress and joined the party a few months ago, and were given party tickets from the Berhampur Lok Sabha and Assembly seats respectively. Likewise, the trigger for the resignation of Gunupur MLA Trinath Gomango was the induction of Pradip Dishari, the losing Congress candidate in the last election.
Ironically, the man who has lit the fire is the owner of the house himself! BJD supremo and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik certainly knew what was coming when he decided to replace sitting MPs in eight out of the nine constituencies and fielded new faces in 27 of the 54 Assembly seats going to polls in the first two phases.
Among those replaced were 14 sitting MLAs. But it was a gamble Naveen had to take. Ground reports commissioned by him had apparently suggested that while his own popularity had not waned significantly, the vast majority of his legislators had lost the trust of the people. He thus had little choice but to replace many of them, in some cases with recruits from other parties.
Murmurs of protest were heard in 2014 too. If it has assumed the proportions of a full-throttled war cry this time, there are two reasons for it. First, the number of disgruntled is way too higher. Second, Naveen doesn’t have the services of an astute and effective fire-fighter this time.
The wily Pyari Mohan Mohapatra (now dead) did the job for him while senior leader Kalpataru Das (also dead now) managed the fall-out efficiently in 2014. In their place, the BJD supremo is banking on a motley group of young Turks in the party and a few trusted officers to escape unscathed this time. But they are clearly proving unequal to the task.
The flattering surveys notwithstanding, Naveen knows the fight is going to be much closer in 2019 than it was last time. For one thing, both the Congress and the BJP are in a much better shape this time than they were in 2014, especially in western Odisha.
While the BJP has always fared better in the region than it has done in the rest of the state, the Congress has emerged as a real force to reckon with in the area in this election, particularly after the party formed the government in neighbouring Chhattisgarh.
The Bhupesh Baghel government’s decision to waive farm loans and pay a bonus of Rs 750 per quintal of paddy has struck a chord among farmers in western Odisha, which shares a border with Chhattisgarh.
There are reports from the ground of farmers in western Odisha, who are unable to sell their paddy even at the MSP of ₹1750 per quintal, crossing over to the other side for better prices for their produce. In his address in Bargarh during his last visit to the state on March 15, Congress President Rahul Gandhi promised much more than just loan waiver and ₹2500 a quintal of paddy to farmers in the state. And it seems to be having the desired effect on voters in the area.
The twin challenge of the Congress and BJP in western Odisha is giving sleepless nights to Naveen Patnaik. In fact, the Chief Minister’s decision to contest from Bijepur in Bargarh district, in addition to Hinjli in Ganjam which he has been representing in the last four Assemblies, is a clear pointer that he has realized his party was on a sticky wicket in the rgeion. In choosing to contest from Bijepur, he is merely trying to retrieve the situation for his party by launching his famous charm offensive.
While the BJD’s bastion in coastal Odisha remains more or less intact, Naveen knows the outcome of the 2019 election would depend largely on how well he manages the fallout of large scale changes in the list of party candidates. If his firefighters fail, it could well be a repeat of 1995 when the Janata Dal led by the mighty Biju Patnaik, Naveen’s father, was reduced to just 46 from a high of 123 despite the absence of any discernible disenchantment or anger with his government – primarily because of rebel candidates in the vast majority of constituencies.