Naveen Patnaik Still Popular, But Can Voter Wisdom and BJP’s Rapid Growth Beat the Odds in Odisha?
In Odisha, the BJP has grown inorganically at the expense of the BJD, adding at least four rebel MLAs from Naveen Patnaik’s fold.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who is seeking re-election for the fifth consecutive term, is contesting from two Assembly seats for the first time.
While Naveen Patnaik continues to be a popular chief minister, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has placed himself firmly in the Odisha backyard. This shift is likely to get reflected in how the Oriya people use their two votes this time – one for the Assembly and the other for the Parliament.
If you want to see for yourself how evolved the Indian electorate has become and how democracy has matured, come to Odisha. For it is here that one realises how discerning the voter is while choosing between Delhi and Bhubaneshwar. The clarity could get Odisha the moniker of Indian democracy’s wisdom tooth.
Check for yourself. In Botanda, on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, Deeptimani Garnaik has stepped out of her home to watch Jhamu Yatra – a ritual where people walk on burning charcoal as part of Vishu festivities – the Oriya New Year. Deeptimani tells me she is supporting Naveen babu in Odisha as he has worked for the women, and adds in the same breath, she will vote for Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha elections.
Garnaik’s sentiment is shared by Sabita Prushty, a Kalinga Nagar resident. Prushty, too, finds the New Year menu full of political a la carte. “The women of Odisha stood with Naveen Patnaik even during the 2014 Modi wave,” she says. The feel-good factor is attributed to Patnaik’s special schemes for women that have delivered with consistency. “Still, we feel Modi is best suited to lead the country, while we would stand by Patnaik for Odisha. He has no substitute,” is how Prushti sum up the pickings this election.
In 2004, Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) had got 27 percent votes, winning 61 of 84 seats it contested. In alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that netted 32 seats (17 per cent vote share), Patnaik became chief minister for the second time. Interestingly, Odisha showed signs of wisdom even then, by voting out BJP-led NDA government in Delhi, even as retaining Patnaik in Bhubaneshwar. The Congress, which led UPA to power in Delhi, however, faired badly in the state, getting only 38 of the 133 seats it contested in the 147-member Assembly, despite a higher vote share (34.8 per cent).
In a sign of how Patnaik strengthened his grip over power, BJD’s vote share jumped to 38.9 per cent (and 103 seats), coming to power on its own in 2009, having jettisoned the BJP in the backdrop of Kandhamal episode. Patnaik would go on to consolidate his party further, polling 43.5 percent votes in 2014 and winning overwhelmingly in the state assembly. All this while both the BJP and Congress kept losing their seats and vote share in Odisha, clearly displaying how Naveen had no challenger in the state he inherited from his father Biju Patnaik.
While Odisha has followed this broad pattern over the last decade or more, the story might shift a little in 2019. Going by the results of panchayat elections last year, the BJP has recovered its lost ground, and is providing the voters with a substitute to an ageing, if not ailing, Patnaik.
This transition is most visible in the number of senior BJD leaders who have crossed over to the BJP. Patnaik’s face in Delhi, Baijayant Jay Panda, belonged to the inner circle of reclusive Patnaik till a couple of years ago. Having fallen out of favour owing to darbar politics, he joined the BJP in March 2019. Veteran BJD leader and cabinet minister Damodar Rout, who was expelled from the party last year, also joined the BJP in March.
Since then, the saffron party has grown inorganically at the expense of the BJD, adding at least four rebel MLAs from Patnaik’s fold. If these movements are a weathervane of where the political winds are blowing in Odisha, then BJP can look forward to a significant revival in its fortunes. Panda actually believes so. “The BJP’s growth has naturally attracted new talent that had no options earlier. It should tell you something about the mood of the people that these leaders represent,” he says.
Sampad Mahapatra, a senior Bhubaneshwar-based journalist, reminds us of the last panchayat polls, saying that BJP’s sharp growth from 36 in 2012 to 296 in 2017 is an indication of a ground shift. “The party’s surge was across the state and at the expense of Congress, which is in shambles. Some clear leadership mistakes migrated traditional Congress supporters into the BJP fold,” he says. The observation confirms with chatter on the ground, with most political discussions centred on a BJP-BJD battle, and an invisible Congress campaign.
Sanjay Kumar, director of Centre For Studies of Developing Society, credits the first push by the BJP as the reason for this dual thought of ‘Modi for PM and Navin for CM’ shift. “I won’t be surprised if people have intentions of voting differently for Assembly and Lok Sabha in Odisha. The narrative of nationalism and image of Modi seems to have boosted the electoral prospects of BJP in the state. The sharp decline of Congress in the state has also helped the rise of BJP, which is headed for gains in Odisha. I think the gap between number 1 party and number 2 party in both Odisha and Bengal will still be large … could be more than 10 percent. How much of that will translate into seats we will have to see,” Kumar says.
How the BJP has made inroads into the political narrative of Odisha can be seen at the Ravenshaw University in Cuttack – one of India’s oldest universities. A group of students talks nationalism using BJP’s New India terminology. Maowad, Naxalwad stands neutralised even as national security is top most as a concern believes the group, adding that the 2016 Uri surgical strikes and the 2019 Balakot airstrikes show diplomatic achievements of India. Even dynasty – another of BJP themes – finds resonance with a student in the group claiming, “Na parivaarvad, na jaatiwad sabse pehle rashtravaad (nationalism before nepotism).”
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