Lok Sabha polls: In Odisha, a nervous minister and a battle for Puri

Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, the poster boy of the BJP in Odisha, is up against the second most important man in the BJD

Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan in what he thought was the safe seat of Sambalpur (photo: @dpradhanbjp/X)
Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan in what he thought was the safe seat of Sambalpur (photo: @dpradhanbjp/X)

Ashutosh Mishra

Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, the poster boy of the BJP in Odisha, spent months scouting for a safe seat to contest from in the ongoing Lok Sabha election, in which Odisha will vote on 13, 20 and 25 May and 1 June. Finally, he zeroed in on Sambalpur, the political nerve centre of western Odisha, where the party is supposed to have a strong base.

The constituency adjoins Deogarh, from where Pradhan made his Lok Sabha debut in 2004, and includes parts of Deogarh and Angul, the latter being his home district.

Sambalpur, thus, appeared a safe bet for him. But not quite any longer, with the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) pitting its general-secretary (organisation) Pranab Prakash Das, the second most important man in the party hierarchy, against him.

Pradhan may not have bargained for this, but the failure of alliance talks between the BJP and BJD has set the stage for many such high-voltage contests in the state this time. None, though, are more exciting than Sambalpur, where the BJP’s Nitesh Ganga Deb registered a narrow victory over his BJD rival Nalini Pradhan last time, by a wafer-thin margin of just over 7,000 votes.

But Pranab Das aka 'Bobby' is a cut above the likes of Nalini Pradhan. With tremendous resources at his command and the full backing of chief minister Naveen Patnaik and his Man Friday, bureaucrat-turned-politician V.K. Pandian, he is capable of giving his famous BJP rival a hard run for his money. 

Though originally from the coastal district of Jajpur, Bobby knows Sambalpur better than Pradhan, and has been visiting the area regularly since being appointed the BJD observer for the district in March last year.  

The BJD's Pranab 'Bobby' Das (centre) is no pushover (photo: @pranabpdas/X)
The BJD's Pranab 'Bobby' Das (centre) is no pushover (photo: @pranabpdas/X)

With polling in Sambalpur to be held in the third phase on 25 May, Bobby will no doubt use his clout to mobilise party cadre from different parts of the state to work for him. Like his father Ashok Das, a popular Janata Dal leader of his time and an ardent follower of Biju Patnaik, father of Naveen, Bobby has the reputation of being an excellent organiser. Impressed by his organising skills, Patnaik had in 2019 made it a point to create the post of party general-secretary (organisation), just for Bobby.

It is a prestige battle for both Bobby and Pradhan. The Union minister, who is entering the poll fray in the state after a gap of 15 years (he lost the Assembly election from Pallahara in 2009), is well aware that a defeat could severely dent his image as the face of the BJP in the state, and impact his standing in the party at the national level. More than his own track record, Pradhan would be pinning his hopes on the pull of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the dominance of OBCs, the community he comes from, in Sambalpur.  

Bobby, on the other hand, will rely on his party’s organisational strength and the mass appeal of Patnaik, who had won the Bijepur Assembly seat, not far from Sambalpur, in 2019. Though Patnaik later gave up Bijepur in favour of his traditional seat of Hinjili, his campaign helped strike a chord with the people in the entire Sambalpur-Bargarh belt. The BJD still has its MLAs in four out of seven Assembly segments under Sambalpur Lok Sabha constituency.

King of election-time drama: Sambit Patra (photo: @sambitswaraj/X)
King of election-time drama: Sambit Patra (photo: @sambitswaraj/X)

The Congress is yet to announce its candidate from Sambalpur, but that is unlikely to change the character of the contest in the constituency which, by all accounts, is set for a fierce duel between two highly resourceful candidates representing the two major parties of the state.  

An equally fascinating battle is shaping up in Puri, the constituency from which state BJP leaders once wanted PM Modi to contest. The BJD this time has replaced its sitting MP Pinaki Mishra with former Mumbai Police commissioner Arup Patnaik, who began his political career on a disappointing note in 2019 by losing the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat to the BJP’s Aparajita Sarangi, the bureaucrat-turned-politician who was PM Modi's pick for the seat.

The convenor of the BJD’s social service initiative Odisha-Mo Parivar, Arup Patnaik will face off against BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra, who lost the last election by over 11,000 votes. Both Arup and Patra are good organisers, but the latter can beat his rival hands down in poll-time theatrics. A frequent visitor to the constituency, he has been meeting people in villages and spending time with them.

Given Puri’s religious significance, the BJP candidate may find it easier than Arup to strike a chord with the people. The Congress has fielded former journalist Sucharita Mohanty from the seat, but the main contest will be between the BJP and BJD, and Arup had better keep a close watch on the antics of his rival.

The political temperature has also been rising in Berhampur, the constituency made famous by former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who won the seat in 1996. 

Known as the political barometer of southern Odisha, Berhampur is witnessing a fight between two turncoats — the BJD’s Bhrugu Buxipatra and the BJP’s Pradeep Panigrahy. The Congress has fielded a new face, Rashmi Ranjan Patnaik, who is yet to make his mark in politics.

For Panigrahy, who was a minister in the Naveen Patnaik government before being thrown out of the ministry and the BJD for alleged anti-people activities, it is a grudge battle. He is out to settle a score with the chief minister, who he holds primarily responsible for the corruption cases filed against him which landed him in jail.

While Panigrahy joined the BJP on election eve, Buxipatra, who contested the last election from the constituency on the lotus symbol, switched over to the BJD once his hope of a renomination vanished. Now these political apostates face each other in the constituency, seeking votes in the names of leaders — PM Modi in the case of Panigrahy and CM Patnaik for Buxipatra — whom they have reviled several times in the past.  

An equally interesting battle is on the cards in Balasore, where former Union minister and BJP veteran Pratap Sarangi is caught in a triangular contest with the BJD’s Lekhashree Samantsinghar, who until recently was state BJP vice-president, and Congress stalwart Srikant Jena. 

For Lekhashree, who quit the saffron party after failing to get a ticket, fighting Sarangi would be like challenging her own political guru. On the other hand Jena, a former Union minister, is a battle-scarred veteran who last won the Balasore seat in 2009. This will be an interesting triangular contest to watch.

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