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BJP Meet in Odisha: After Congress Rout, PM Aims for Opposition-mukt East India

The importance of Odisha in BJP’s strategy for 2019 can be gauged from the fact that the party has started calling it the ‘epicentre of eastern India politics’.

Marya Shakil | CNN-News18maryashakil

Updated:April 15, 2017, 12:03 PM IST

Bhubaneswar: As the Bharatiya Janata Party's two-day national executive meet begins in Bhubaneswar, the Saffron juggernaut has clearly set its sights on the eastern state where it won only one of the 21 seats in 2014 general election, which saw Narendra Modi coming to power with a historic mandate. Buoyed by its stellar performance in the recent Assembly polls, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP is now talking about making Odisha its ‘Gateway to the East’.

The BJP is leaving nothing to chance and has started out early as both general and Assembly polls in Odisha are due in 2019. BJP has already become the primary opposition in Odisha after the local body polls in February, where it emerged as a close second after Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal.

Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who is the face of BJP in Odisha, told News18 that Bhubaneswar was a ‘natural choice’ for the April 15-16 meeting. “The Prime Minister has been emphasising that unless Eastern India stands on its own, India’s growth story is incomplete,” said Pradhan.

ALSO READ | Eight Years after 'Betrayal', BJP Seeks to Turn Tables in Odisha

The importance of Odisha in BJP’s strategy for 2019 can be gauged from the fact that the party has started calling it the ‘epicentre of eastern India politics’.

According to sources, BJP President Amit Shah has already prepared a blueprint to expand the party’s base in areas along Coromandel Coast. And Odisha seems to be just the first stop. “In the last three years, we have won Assam and Manipur. Our base has increased in West Bengal, Odisha and Kerala many fold. The idea is to strengthen at the grassroots level,” said Pradhan, who has already made his mark as an able administrator in New Delhi.

BJP strategists said the ‘East push’ was part of a larger strategy to reduce the party’s dependence on Uttar Pradesh. In 2014, BJP won 71 out of 80 seats in UP. And the party has been able to repeat almost a similar success in the recent Assembly polls. The BJP wants to account for a possible anti-incumbency factor in UP by 2019, and cover the possible gap from the seats it couldn’t win in 2014 across the nation. No wonder, a state where the party won only 1 of the 21 seats in 2014 is high on priority. “2019 numbers will come from districts along Coromandel Coast,” a BJP source told News18, summing up the mood of the party’s top leadership.

The BJP is aggressively cashing in on anti-incumbency in the state where Naveen Patnaik has been in power since 2000. Congress, the only other opposition, is yet to come out of the woods.

The BJP is also wooing some of the key BJD leaders, to further strengthen its base in Odisha. When asked, Pradhan said, several BJD MPs, including Jay Panda, Tathagata Satpathy and Bhartruhari Mahtab, are his old friends. It remains to be seen if some of these opponents-turned-friends will become Pradhan’s fellow travellers.

During his Bhubaneswar visit, Modi will honour the families of 16 martyrs who participated in the Paika Rebellion of 1817. Though 1857 is popularly seen as the first revolt for Independence, Odisha takes pride in the 1817 struggle wherin the traditional land militia had revolted against the East India Company.

Emphasising that the sentiments of the Oriyas are being respected, the Union government has opened its coffers for the renewal of the Cult of Jagannath.

Commenting on this, BJD MP Tathagata Satpathy said, “It is interesting that the BJP wants to lock horns with the BJD. They have to remember that our Lord Jagannath is an epitome of tolerance. Let us wait and watch if the common Oriya is willing to deface the great tradition of our Lord.”

While acknowledging the BJP’s recent rise in the state, BJD leaders say Naveen Patnaik continues to be the most popular leader in Odisha and it won’t be easy for the BJP to uproot a party which has a two-thirds majority in the 147-member Assembly.

Keeping in mind the crucial tribal vote bank, once loyal to Congress, there are rumours in Delhi that the BJP may propose a leader from this community as the next President of India. A BJP source told News18 that such a move would help the party in consolidating the crucial tribal constituencies, mainly in South Bengal and North Odisha. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh is already pursuing its agenda of ‘mainstreaming of tribals’ under the larger Hindutva umbrella through their Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams.

Taking a belligerent line in West Bengal, the BJP has succeeded in occupying the opposition space. The state with 42 Lok Sabha seats is the new laboratory for Hindutva. With Mamata Banerjee converting the issue of demonetisation as a battle against Modi and the opposition in general desperately looking for someone to take on the PM, some have begun to talk about her as the PM candidate in 2019. However, the taints of Saradha and Narada scams could affect her national ambitions. “Modi will have greater legitimacy in case it turns out to be a Modi Vs Mamata battle,” said a BJP leader.

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| Edited by: Huma Tabassum
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