Bhubaneswar: Campaigning for the Bijepur Assembly by-election in Odisha reached its peak on Thursday with Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo Naveen Patnaik himself leading the party’s bandwagon on a two-day visit to the constituency.
“Are you all happy?” asked Patnaik, who turned 74 a day ago, in his trademark, accented Odia at hugely attended public meetings in the constituency.
“I am also very happy… Please bless me and vote for Rita Sahu on the conch symbol,” said the state’s longest-serving chief minister from atop a hydraulic lift in his hi-tech Rs 1-crore campaign bus customised for election campaigns.
Patnaik, who reached Bijepur in the morning, addressed about 30 gatherings at various places in the constituency in Odisha’s western Bargarh district, a backward place known as much for being the state’s rice bowl as the district with the most reported cases of farmer suicides.
This election, slated for October 21, is the third for Bijepur constituency in 20 months. Patnaik, who has been chief minister of Odisha for 19 years in a row, had won this seat along with Hinjili in Ganjam district in the April-May simultaneous polls. He chose to retain Hinjili, his traditional seat that has elected him five times so far, and vacated the Bijepur seat.
For the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress, the main campaign issue here is the “CM’s betrayal” with Bijepur’s electorate.
However, the BJD that had won the seat in the past two polls didn’t appear bothered about the charge and the leadership is certain that the government’s welfare schemes would help the party bag the sear this time as well.
Sahu is the widow of Bijepur’s former Congress MLA Subal Sahu, who had won three polls on the trot and represented the constituency between 2004 and 2017. His untimely death in August 2017 had led to the first bypoll in February 2018, in which Rita contested on a BJD ticket and won.
The CM, contesting for the first time from two Assembly seats, had won the Bijepur seat in the April-May simultaneous polls. BJP candidate Sanat Kumar Gartia, who had contested against Patnaik here in last polls, was defeated by 57,122 votes last time. The Congress has fielded Dillip Panda this time after denying a ticket to its previous candidate Ripunath Seth.
Last Friday, BJP leader and Union Petroleum and Steel Minister Dharmendra Pradhan had called Patnaik a “deserter” for vacating the seat after winning it.
“The chief minister is not genuinely concerned about Bijepur’s voters. Had he been so, he could have vacated his Hinjili seat. Bijepur’s voters showed their faith in him, but he repaid it by bringing the burden of a bypoll on them,” Pradhan had said.
In the triangular electoral battle, the other dominant issues include bad roads, unavailability of doctors at hospitals, an irrigation project refusing to take off, absence of cold storages for brinjals produced in the district and demands to set up a judicial magistrate first class (JMFC) court in Bijepur.
“Naveenbabu has a lot to answer to voters here. Farmers of this region are selling paddy at the rate of Rs 1,200 a quintal. The Centre sent you (government) Rs 1,750 per quintal, but you gave only Rs 1,200 to farmers. They want to know how and why the government ate up the rest Rs 550,” said BJP state president Basant Panda.
The ruling camp, which has deployed several ministers to camp and campaign in Bijepur for over a fortnight, is banking on Patnaik’s charishma and is confident of a victory.
“The people of Bijepur are keen on staying with the flow of development. They want to stay with the BJD. They want to stay with the CM so that the constituency’s development gains pace,” said Agriculture Minister Arun Sahoo.
Meanwhile, the Congress already seemed to have given up the fight. “Patnaik and the BJP have spent huge sums of money in campaigns here. We (Congress) can never match them… I do not think we have a chance here in such conditions. Is it possible to get votes without spending money? The Congress has very little money. We are going to lose this bypoll,” said senior Congress leader and MLA Suresh Routray, who has been campaigning in the area and meeting people for the past four days.