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Rahul Gandhi May Not be Able to Arrest Odisha Congress’ Decline in Time for Polls

Several factors contributed to the Congress’ decimation in Bijepur. At one level, it was a continuation of the freefall the party has been witnessing for the last few years.

Sandeep Sahu |

Updated:March 5, 2018, 8:56 AM IST
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Rahul Gandhi May Not be Able to Arrest Odisha Congress’ Decline in Time for Polls
File photo of Congress president Rahul Gandhi (PTI)
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On the face of it, the Congress had everything going for it. The party had staved off the mighty challenge of the BJD in the constituency thrice in succession – in 2004, 2009 and 2014 - even as the ruling party held sway over the rest of Odisha. The Congress had run a low-key, door-to-door campaign even as the other two parties – BJD and BJP – ran a high decibel, expensive campaign spending money like water and hurling charges and abuses against each other. More importantly, it was the only party that had fielded a strong grassroots leader with a good, clean image while the other two – BJD and BJP – had chosen to bank on leaders imported from outside.

The BJD had fielded Rita Sahu, the widow of Late Subal Sahu, the three-time MLA, whose premature death in August last year necessitated the by-election in Bijepur. The BJP had roped in Ashok Panigrahi, a BJD rebel who had got 18,000+ votes while contesting the 2014 Assembly elections here as an independent candidate. And yet, the Congress candidate Pranay Sahu could secure no more than 10, 274 votes, a staggering 43, 016 less than what the party got it in 2014, and lost its deposit.

How did this steep fall come about? The fact that Rita Sahu was weaned away by BJD soon after her husband’s death was certainly a factor. But then with sound political strategy, the Congress could have made it work for itself and against the BJD by terming the desertion as a betrayal of Subal Sahu’s dreams. Instead, it allowed BJD to get away with the blatant lie that Sahu wanted to quit the Congress and join the ruling party before his death.

Several factors contributed to the Congress’ decimation in Bijepur. At one level, it was a continuation of the freefall the party has been witnessing for the last few years.

The panchayat elections last year had given ample indication that the party had begun to yield the tag of the main opposition party in the state to the BJP. That a revival of the party’s fortunes is not possible under current PCC President Prasad Harichandan has been in evidence for quite some time now. Almost the entire Congress Legislature Party is ranged against him and has been pressing the high command for his ouster for at least two years now. But for reasons known only to itself, the high command has persisted with him, further hastening the process of downslide.

No wonder, Harichandan’s father-in-law and senior Congress leader Suresh Routray accused ‘three senior leaders’ of the party (without naming them) of sabotage to force a change of guard. Having read the writing on the wall, Harichandan submitted his resignation to Rahul Gandhi, but no one is sure if it would be accepted.

At another level, the Bijepur outcome was also a reflection of the listlessness of Congress cadres in the state. Without power for 18 long years, they are a dispirited, rudderless and despondent lot with not a hope in hell. With little hope of winning, they chose to cast their lot with the BJD – with or without the help of some senior leaders - to keep the aggressive BJP at bay in Bijepur.

Talk of a secret understanding between the BJD and the Congress, which has been in the air for some time now, gained further currency after Bijepur once it became clear that the 43, 000 plus votes that the party lost in comparison to 2014 had gone almost entirely to the BJD. The result also showed that the three successive victories of the party was more due to the personal standing and popularity of the Late Subal Sahu than the Congress’ support base in the constituency.

The decline of the party that ruled the state for so long has been steady and long term. And it goes without saying the revival too has to be a steady, painstaking and long-term process. While the Congress has shown signs of revival in its erstwhile strongholds like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh of late under a new look, rejuvenated Rahul Gandhi, no such signs are visible in Odisha. The rot has gone so deep that even a new PCC President may not be able to arrest the downslide in time for the next election due in a year’s time.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)​
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