On May 23, as the Opposition collapsed in state after state in the wake of an unprecedented Modi wave, only three leaders held fort: YS Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, MK Stalin of the DMK, which fought the elections in alliance with the Congress in Tamil Nadu, and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha.
Of these leaders, Patnaik’s emphatic win is the sweetest and the most significant as the gentleman politician was fighting for his fifth consecutive term in the coastal state and has been at the helm of affairs for an unprecedented 19 long years already.
Odisha, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said would become ‘another Tripura’, decided instead to remain firmly with its trusted political icon, Patnaik. The BJP had to be content with significant gains in the Parliamentary elections but the BJD led the tally even here. Patnaik fended off a Modi wave for the second time, the first being 2014 when the BJD had won 117 of 147 assembly seats and 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats.
In perhaps the most bitterly fought elections in Odisha, Patnaik had said that Modi is his principal opponent in the state. So heated was the contest that in an interview to this channel, Patnaik had remarked that Modi did not deserve a second term. By taking on the Prime Minister directly, Patnaik was perhaps able to contain the extent of the split vote in the state and consolidate the BJD’s position as a party that is the defender of Odisha rights.
Interestingly, the contrast between Modi and Patnaik could not be starker. While Patnaik is soft-spoken, mild-mannered and delivers pithy speeches, Modi believes in delivering long speeches, aggressively attacking political adversaries. While the BJP had a galaxy of leaders led by Modi, party president Amit Shah, union ministers Dharmendra Pradhan, Nitin Gadkari, Rajnath Singh and Piyush Goel, who campaigned in the state, the BJD relied on the charisma and strategy of only one leader, Naveen Patnaik.
The BJD’s fifth win in a row is not a flash in the pan. Patnaik sounded the poll bugle in December 2018 with the popular Kalia scheme for farmers which, in a first, included the landless also. As a chief minister, he did not stop at announcing the scheme from the capital city but toured district after district launching the same. On the day election dates were announced, Patnaik was at a Mission Shakti programme in Kendrapada, a flagship scheme of the state government, where he announced that BJD would send seven women to the Lok Sabha.
The chief minister took a huge political risk by deciding to field as many as seven women candidates, but it paid off with five of them winning handsomely. Pramila Bisoyi, the SHG activist from Aska, from where Patnaik started his political journey in 1997, defeated BJP’s Anita Subhadarshini by over two lakh votes, Rajashree Mallick from Jagatsinghpur defeated BJP’s Bibhu Prasad Terai by 2,71,655 votes -- the highest margin in the state -- and Chandrani Murmu, the youngest MP in the 17th Lok Sabha, defeated BJP’s Ananta Nayak by over 66,000 votes.
Reinventing strategy and campaign, Patnaik criss-crossed the state in a specially designed bus, covering hundreds of kilometers by road, staying out of the state capital, addressing huge rallies as well as modest groups of people who gathered at cross roads to catch a glimpse of him. His pitch in the road shows was disarmingly simple, short and sharp, and as the election results proved, very effective.
It is in these rallies that he countered the attacks by political opponents, most notably, the jibe of ‘double engine’, ‘fused transformer’, and ‘close-to-the-bone’ attack by Prime Minister Modi himself, who in Kendrapada had taunted Patnaik with, ‘the time is up for you’, ‘a handful of officers cannot save you’. The next day, Patnaik replied by ‘humbly’ inviting him to attend his swearing-in ceremony as ‘after the third phase, we have already got a majority’.
As the final results reveal, the BJD won 112 of the 147 assembly seats in Odisha, just five less compared to its tally of 117 in 2014. The BJP, which emerged as the principal opposition won just 23 seats, a far cry from its “mission 120” and just 13 more than its tally of 10 in 2014, but in the process emerged as the principal opposition displacing the Congress party, which won just 9 seats. The CPI (M) and independent won one each. Polls to the assembly seat of Patkura have been deferred twice.
In the 2019 assembly polls, the vote share of the BJD stood at 44.7 per cent up by one percent from 43.4 per cent in 2014, the BJP at 32.5 per cent from 18 per cent, adding nearly 14 per cent and the Congress at 16.1 per cent, down by 9 per cent from its share 25.7 per cent in 2014.
In the parliamentary elections, the BJD won 12, eight down from its stellar performance of 20 in 2014. The BJP went up from 1 to 8, making impressive gains, while the Congress went up from zero to 1.
The vote share for the BJD in parliamentary elections stood at 42.8 per cent, in fact, the party lost a little over one percent of its vote share of 44 per cent in 2014. The BJP at 38.4 per cent gained significantly from 21.55 per cent and the Congress stood at a dismal 13.8 per cent, down from 26 per cent in 2014. The near decimation of the Congress in Odisha gave advantage to the saffron party.
In the parliamentary elections, the ruling BJD lost six seats by a margin of less than 20,000 votes. In fact in Koraput, Congress’s lone winner from the state, Saptagiri Sandar Ulaka defeated BJD’s Kaushalya Hikaka by a little over 3,600 votes. Of the seven assembly constituencies in Koraput, BJD won 5, Congress won one, while one went to an independent candidate.
Politically, the most stinging blows to Patnaik came from the two parliamentary constituencies of Bargarh in western Odisha and Bhubaneswar, the capital city. For the first time, Patnaik had contested from two assembly segments -- Hinji, his home turf, and Bijepur, in the Bargarh parliamentary constituency. While the BJD won 7 of the 7 assembly segments, its Lok Sabha candidate Prasanna Acharya was defeated by BJP’s Suresh Pujari by a decisive 63,939 votes.
In Bhubaneswar, a BJD fortress since 1998 and a loss that would haunt the party, the margin of victory of BJP’s Aparajita Sarangi was a little over 23,800 votes over her rival, BJD’s Arup Patnaik. The BJP could not win even one of the seven assembly segments in Bhubaneswar, with BJD winning six and Congress winning one. The Congress had not fielded any candidate here, preferring to back the left candidate who polled a little over 20,000 votes, giving an advantage to the BJP.
In Kendrapada, another BJD bastion, Modi’s campaign could not ensure a win for Baijyant Panda, BJD’s rebel MP who had joined the BJP just ahead of elections. In Puri, another high-profile constituency, spokesperson Sambit Patra fought well, losing to BJD’s Pinaki Mishra by just over 11,000 votes.
On Wednesday, Patnaik would create history again, becoming only the third politician in the country to take oath as chief minister for the fifth consecutive time, a record that would be hard to beat. Locally, people refer to him as ‘amara nabina’ or ‘our Naveen’, and it is this connect that Patnaik continues to have with the people of Odisha, perhaps a politician’s greatest asset, that returns him to power again and again.
Apart from his strong pro-poor and pro-women policies, what stands out in Patnaik’s politics is that he has never, in his speeches through the two decades, appealed to caste or religious sentiments.
Civility in political discourse, a rarity in days of quick-serving high decibel campaigns, is also a huge part of the Naveen legacy in Odisha. And, of course, the urgency and political will to fight to fight natural disasters shown by Patnaik has received recognition worldwide.
As night fell on May 23 and as results indicated a clear victory for the BJD, when asked how would he relax now that the anxiety of results is over, Patnaik shot back, “Tthere is no time to relax, we have to swear-in a new government and get down to work’. Patnaik is going strong at 72 years and is not looking at hanging up his boots yet.