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Kalinga War: Why This Buzz About BJP in Odisha

File photo of BJP chief Amit Shah. (Photo: PTI)

File photo of BJP chief Amit Shah. (Photo: PTI)

Delhi's political circles are abuzz about BJP’s chances in two eastern states – West Bengal and Odisha – after the party’s spectacular win in Uttar Pradesh.

New Delhi: Delhi's political circles are abuzz about BJP’s chances in two eastern states – West Bengal and Odisha – after the party’s spectacular win in Uttar Pradesh.

The buzz continues despite Mamata’s massive victory in Bengal last year and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) taking pole position in the recently concluded Odisha panchayat and zilla parishad elections. With an eye on Odisha, a resurgent BJP is now holding its national executive in Bhubaneswar on April 15-16.

Post panchayat polls, does the BJP have a realistic chance to wrest Odisha from BJD in the 2019 assembly elections? The state elections are being held along with parliamentary polls. Can the BJP build on its showing in panchayat polls and become a strong contender two years later and oust Naveen Patnaik, who is ruling Odisha uninterrupted since 2000?

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In the zilla parishad polls, out of 800-plus seats, the BJP won 300 seats to come second behind the BJD, which won close to 500 seats. The Congress was reduced to the third position. In the 2012 zilla parishad polls, the BJP had won only 36 seats.

Odisha has 147 assembly seats and 74 is the number required to form the government. In 2014, the BJD had won 117 seats, the Congress 16 and the BJP 10. And in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJD had won 20 out of 21 seats. The BJP won only one seat in a tough fight in Sundargarh. The Modi wave that swept the 2014 elections was clearly missing in Odisha.

Earlier, the BJD had won two state elections in 2000 and 2004 in alliance with the BJP before it unceremoniously snapped ties just before the 2009 general elections. The BJD went on to win 103 assembly seats and the BJP only six in 2009.

Then what explains this sudden buzz about the BJP in Odisha?

First, the BJP’s victory in panchayat polls and second is the health of the chief minister. Patnaik, 70, is rumoured to be ailing, despite outright denial in BJD ranks. And third, the anti-incumbency factor.

Apparently, the chief minister didn’t step out to campaign in the panchayat polls and left it to his ministers and MLAs.

After the polls, BJD MP Tathagata Satpathy engaged in a Twitter war with Kendrapda MP Baijayant Panda, alleging that the BJP is trying to break the BJD with insider help. This episode gave the impression that all may not be well in the BJD.

Consider the following before drawing any conclusion. Odisha is largely divided into four regions – coastal, south, central and west. Anti-Congress parties have always dominated the coastal belt of Puri, Cuttack and Balasore. The Congress, in its prime, dominated the southern regions in Ganjam, Koraput, Phulbani along with central areas of Dhenkanal and Keonjhar.

The BJP has always done well in the western Odisha districts of Kalahandi, Bolangir, Sambalpur and Sundargarh. The non-Odia business community, which is a dominant factor in western Odisha, has traditionally shown its preference for the BJP, despite not translating into seats. The Congress still used to win most of the seats in western Odisha as the BJP divided the BJD or erstwhile Janta Dal votes. The BJP’s strong showing in western Odisha had forced the BJD to enter into alliance in 1999.

Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, a rising star in the BJP, has been leading the charge in Odisha. One can’t miss the huge billboards of Pradhan that adorn Bhubaneswar. Pradhan is credited with BJP’s spectacular show in Bihar in 2014 general elections and the recent Uttarakhand assemby elections. He is known to be an influential minister and an effective organiser.

Certain amount of boredom among voters is bound to have crept in as Patnaik would be completing 20 years in power in 2019. Some amount of fatigue among the BJD leaders cannot be ruled out either. And the Congress has simply fled the ground, thereby creating a big vacuum for someone else to occupy.

So is it the best time for the BJP to strike in Odisha?

It’ll be surprising if the BJP is able to pull off a strong show in south and coastal Odisha. The party will heavily bank on western Odisha to set it up. If at all it manages to win all 42 seats in western Odisha and few seats in other parts, it’ll still fall short of over two dozen seats to gain power. But what if the BJP sends its top ministers to camp in Odisha and launch a UP-like blitzkrieg led by the Prime Minister? So far, neither the PM nor other BJP leaders have launched any direct attack against Patnaik. Also, Odisha has a minuscule Muslim population. Hence there is no question of any polarisation. Odisha Muslims are very much part of the mainstream.

The BJD has a very strong cadre that is well entrenched across the state. Populist measures like free/cheap rice, laptops, cycles, umbrella, five-rupee meal scheme have worked wonders for Naveen Patnaik. Also what also works in favour of the BJD in 2019 is that the top leaders of BJP may not have that kind of time to spare for Odisha since they would be all busy with the general elections. Amit Shah may not be able to camp in Bhubaneswar and personally choose the candidates for 147 seats when his party will be fighting a much bigger challenge.

The BJP certainly has the best chance to push the down-and-out Congress to the third spot. So it remains to be seen if the saffron party can go all the way and win the war for Kalinga. But then who thought the BJP would sweep UP with 325 seats? The times are changing.