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Spring in BJP’s Step After North East Feat, But Odisha is a Different Ball Game

While the Left Front government headed by Manik Sarkar had to pay the price of anti-incumbency in Tripura, Naveen Patnaik’s affair with the voters shows no signs of souring any time soon. Besides, there is hardly any party that can act as a force multiplier for the BJP in Odisha as the IPFT did in Tripura or the NDPP in Nagaland.

Sandeep Sahu |

Updated:March 6, 2018, 1:20 PM IST
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Spring in BJP’s Step After North East Feat, But Odisha is a Different Ball Game
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Barely three days after the shocker in Bijepur by-poll, the saffron surge in the North East has energised the BJP in Odisha. Suddenly, there is a spring in the step of party leaders, who looked despondent after the crushing defeat in the by-election.

Encouraged by the stunning victory in Tripura, where it hardly had a presence even a couple of years ago, senior party leader and Union Minister Jual Oram bragged that after Manik Sarkar, it is time for Naveen Patnaik to be shown the door in the Assembly elections that will take place along with Lok Sabha elections.

On the face of it, Oram’s assertion does not appear as outrageous as it would have in the immediate aftermath of the Bijepur result. After all, the party had a vote share of 18% in the 2014 Assembly elections and 21.5% in the Lok Sabha polls held simultaneously, far more than the measly 1.5% it had in Tripura in the last elections.

But there is little in common between the ground realities in Odisha and the erstwhile Left bastion in the North East, except the long incumbency of the two governments.

While the Left Front government headed by Manik Sarkar had to pay the price of anti-incumbency in Tripura, Naveen Patnaik’s affair with the voters shows no signs of souring any time soon. Besides, there is hardly any party that can act as a force multiplier for the BJP in Odisha as the IPFT did in Tripura or the NDPP in Nagaland.

By all indications, the BJP was the beneficiary of the decimation of the Congress in Tripura. Though the Congress is in a similar state of terminal illness in Odisha too, the Bijepur by-election showed that the ruling BJD, rather than the BJP, would gain at the expense of the Congress here.

The victory margin of over 42,000 votes in Bijepur proved that most people who voted for the Congress in 2014 chose to cast their lot with the BJD this time. This, however, can change with sound political strategy and management on the ground. After all, the major reason BJP did so well in the zilla parishad elections last year was that the traditional Congress voters voted for BJP candidates on that occasion.

Though it appears remote at the moment, there is also the possibility of a revival of sorts in the Congress fortunes between now and the next elections. PCC president Prasad Harichandan has already sent in his resignation to party president Rahul Gandhi owning moral responsibility for the humiliation in Bijepur where it lost its deposit.

If the high command decides to accept the resignation and name a new PCC chief acceptable to most factions in the party, the Congress can hope to recover at least some of the lost ground. But this is more likely to help the BJD, which would gain from a three-cornered contest, than the BJP.

The one major takeaway from Bijepur was that Union Minister for Petroleum and Skill Development Dharmandra Pradhan, who has been projected as the face of the party in Odisha and ran the campaign in the by-election almost single-handedly, bungled big time in the by-election.

As someone being projected as the man to replace Naveen, Pradhan came a cropper. If party sources are to be believed, the central leadership has realised that it may not have been a wise decision to vest him with so much power in matters involving Odisha.

The appointment of Jual Oram, the other Union Minister from the state, as the observer for the crucial state of Tripura is being seen in party circles here as an outcome of this belated realisation.

Though the odds appear to be stacked against the BJP at the moment, all is not lost for the party. Even the defeat in Bijepur was not as bad as the margin suggests. After all, the party nearly doubled its votes compared to the 2014 election. But it needs to do some serious introspection and come out with the right strategy if it hopes to put up a serious challenge to the BJD, which holds most of the aces at the moment.

For a start, it must realise that intemperate personal attacks on Patnaik are not going to win it any votes. Nor is the targeting of officials in the CMO, as seen in the cow dung attack on the residence of the Chief Minister’s private secretary VK Pandian, is sound political strategy.

Despite the thumping win in Bijepur, the coming election is unlikely to be a cakewalk for Naveen Patnaik and his party. Voter disenchantment has set in at most places while fissures within the party are now out in the open. While Naveen managed to stall the Modi wave on the shores of Odisha in 2014, 2019 could be the toughest battle in his sterling political career during which he has never been in the Opposition.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
| Edited by: Ahona Sengupta
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