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Hit by Sudden Exodus Ahead of Rahul Gandhi Visit, Congress Needs Nothing Short of a Miracle in Odisha

There are two main reasons for the Congress fall from public grace. First, it seemed reluctant to take on Naveen Patnaik, for reasons not clear. The second is factionalism, which has always been the bane of the Odisha Congress.

Sandeep Sahu |

Updated:January 25, 2019, 11:44 AM IST
Hit by Sudden Exodus Ahead of Rahul Gandhi Visit, Congress Needs Nothing Short of a Miracle in Odisha
File photo of Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

It was a classic case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’. Just when the Odisha Congress, energised by the morale-boosting victory of the party in three Hindi heartland states was showing definite signs of a revival, it has received a huge setback on two fronts in the last week, just ahead of party president Rahul Gandhi’s Friday visit.

First, senior leader and former Union minister Srikant Jena and his close supporter Krushna Chandra Sagaria were expelled for ‘anti-party’ activities last Saturday. Jena had already been stripped of his post as the chairman of the party’s manifesto committee for his non-stop and scarcely veiled tirade against PCC chief Niranjan Patnaik.

On his part, Sagaria had earlier resigned from the Assembly on November 6 owning ‘moral responsibility’ for what he called his ‘failure’ as the local MLA (he was the legislator from Koraput) in ensuring justice to the victim of the Kunduli gang rape case in October, 2017. But it is well known that it was his way of registering his protest against the state leadership of the party.

The second major setback came in the form of the exit of working president Nabakishore Das and Sundargarh legislator Jogesh Singh, two of only 15 members the party was left with in the Odisha Assembly after the resignation of Sagaria. Both of them are now all set to join the Biju Janata Dal (BJD).

Das’ departure, in particular, is bound to hit the Congress hard because he had kept the party flag flying high in his district at a time when it was in terminal decline in the rest of the state. Not only did he win from the Jharsuguda Assembly seat twice in succession – in 2009 and 2014, under his leadership, the Congress won eight of the nine zila parishad seats in the district in the three-tier panchayat elections in February, 2017. The ninth went to the BJP and the ruling BJD drew a blank.

In fact, this was the reason the BJD, which also lost the neighbouring Brajanagar Assembly seat in the last election, wooed Das and weaned him away from the party that he has been with all his political life.

As if all this was not bad enough, a couple of other sitting MLAs of the Congress – Dr. Prafulla Majhi of Talsara and Prakash Behera of Salepur – have also been sending out signals that they could follow Das and Singh into the BJD. Pranay Sahu, another long-time Congress leader from western Odisha who was the party candidate in the Bijepur by-election, joined the BJD with his supporters on Tuesday.

Significantly, almost all the desertions from the Congress – except for Behera - are from western Odisha where the ruling party has not fared as well in past elections as it has done in its bastion of coastal Odisha.

While this sudden exodus from Congress is certainly a setback for the party, it must have been particularly galling for PCC President Niranjan Patnaik, who appeared to have managed to arrest the slide and infuse some life back into the moribund party organisation in the time since he took over in April last year.

How did the party that ruled the state for the longest period since independence come to such a sorry pass? After all, even after being swept away by the Biju Patnaik tsunami and being reduced to a miserable nine seats in the 147-member Odisha Assembly in 1990, it had the wherewithal to defeat the same Biju and return to power after just five years.

Biju’s son, however, has proved to be a much tougher nut to crack for the Congress. Ever since Naveen Patnaik came to power in 2000, it has been all downhill for the party. From 38 in 2004, the party was reduced to 27 in 2009 and a measly 16 in 2014, just about managing to win the post of Leader of Opposition for veteran leader Narasingha Mishra.

With two of the 16 now gone, even that is under threat. Things touched the nadir during the panchayat poll last year when it managed to win no more than 60 out of the 849 zila parishad seats in the state and was pushed, for the first time ever, to third position behind the BJP, which bagged 297 seats.

There are two main reasons for the Congress fall from public grace. First, it seemed reluctant to take on Naveen Patnaik, for reasons that are still not clear, right through the decade from 2004 during which the Congress-led UPA was in power at the Centre.

While state Congress leaders nailed Naveen and his party day in and day put, top Congress leaders and ministers were all praise for Naveen –or at the very least refrained from criticizing him - whenever they came visiting. The BJP is now suffering from the same syndrome now!

There was talk of Naveen deciding who the PCC president should be when Niranjan was suddenly removed from his post in 2013 when the party had just recorded its first victory since 2000 by winning three NACs. Jayadev Jena, the man who replaced him, proved that it was not a figment of someone’s wild imagination when he said in his very first address to party men that it was the BJD supremo who had conspired to get him removed as PCC chief in his last stint in 2008. “Who got me removed now in that case?” Niranjan was quick to quip!

Six years down the line, the party is still struggling to shake off the taint and get over the crisis of credibility.

The second important reason for the party’s present state is factionalism, which has always been the bane of the Odisha Congress. No PCC chief since the days of JB Patnaik has had a smooth run in the job with dissidents constantly at the incumbent’s throat.

Niranjan has done a better job of managing the dissidents than his two immediate predecessors – Jayadev Jena and Prasad Harichandan. But as the current exodus proves, dissidence is alive and kicking in the party.

It would require nothing short of a miracle for the Congress to recover from the series of setbacks it has suffered in the recent past and pose a serious enough challenge to the all-conquering BJD. Any more desertions in the run up to the election would effectively seal its fate and shatter its dreams of tasting power in the state after two decades.

(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)

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