New Delhi, April 17:
Emerging from the meeting of the party national executive on Saturday, President Amit Shah declared that the BJP will take Odisha when it goes to the polls in 2019, coterminous with the general elections in the country. From “panchayat to parliament,” he said, the party is geared up to win every election that the country sees between now and then. Shah’s confidence was echoed by every leader at the two-day conclave, which saw chief ministers from 13 states and almost the entire cabinet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance. The crowds at Modi’s roadshow from the airport to the venue of the meeting prompted some analysts to draw parallels with the popular support Indira Gandhi had once won in this eastern state. While there might be some truth in all of this, a closer scrutiny of the reality on the ground would suggest winning Odisha is still a long shot for the BJP.
Truth versus hype
Much of the confidence that the BJP exudes over Odisha comes from the panchayat elections held in February. The BJP won 293 of 848 zilla parishad seats, riding on an anti-incumbency mood against the 17-year-old government of chief minister Naveen Patnaik and his Biju Janata Dal that the faction-ridden Congress party failed to cash in on. The BJP’s gain came mostly at the Congress’s expense. Naveen’s party still won 477 seats, which put the party ahead in 94 of the 147 assembly constituencies in the state. The victories for the BJP put the party ahead in 41 constituencies. For the sake of brevity, if we were to make a simple extrapolation from the zilla parishad result, it doesn’t give BJP even half the seats the BJD would win if elections are held today – let alone a majority in the assembly.
Yet like a fox in the henhouse, the BJP has managed to ruffle a party that has a stable, long-running government but whose organisational base is weakening from years of complacency and neglect. Modi’s informal Bhubaneswar roadshow last week drew about 100,000 people, his persona is still a growing phenomenon in the state and a wider pro-BJP wave in the rest of the country might not leave Odisha untouched. So while the electoral math is not yet in its favour, the BJP’s fortunes are on an upward swing in the state, which will put Patnaik’s government under pressure and test his mettle as a political strategist.
For now, the BJP is quick to hype the party’s zilla parishad performance and project itself as the principal challenger to Naveen’s BJD in the next election to the state assembly. A further deep dive into the panchayat results shows the BJP’s win was limited to the top tier. An overwhelming number of sarpanchs and panchayat samiti members, for which elections are not fought on party symbols, came from the Congress and the BJD. Worse, the BJP did poorly in the constituencies of its top leaders from the state, including the president of its Odisha unit, Basant Panda, and union ministers Jual Oram and Dharmendra Pradhan. It is also worth noting that Naveen Patnaik didn’t campaign in these panchayat elections, leaving the job to local MLAs.
A three-horse race
The Congress party may have suffered a body blow in the panchayat elections, but it continues to have strong grass-root support in many parts of the state. If the party’s central leadership moves quickly to reorganise the state unit, it stands a good chance of revival. The party won 16 seats in 2014 and lost as many as 21 with a margin of less than 10,000 votes. In these panchayat elections, its vote share slipped to 18% from 25% in 2014. Even with the current share, local party workers say, the Congress can look to win 25-30 seats if it sets its house in order now. A three-cornered contest, in which anti-incumbency spoils are shared between the Congress and the BJP, benefits Patnaik’s BJD. Patnaik has already taken to course correction, rejigging the roles of his senior party officials and kicking off a district-wise review of development programmes. On Friday, his administration moved swiftly to prevent a repeat of Bhadrak-like communal violence in Kendrapada, a coastal stronghold of the BJD with a substantial Muslim population. He is also seeking an image makeover – the first sign of which came last week when he posed for a selfie with a teenage girl in a coastal village who “fought a crocodile” to save her sister.
Sustaining the momentum
The biggest challenge for the BJP will be to sustain the momentum until the assembly elections, which are two years away. It benefits from a strong presence of the RSS and other Hhindu affiliates in the western and tribal-dominated districts of the state, but its own network of political workers is limited in comparison to that of the BJD, which also has the advantage of being able to leverage the state administration. It currently has 10 MLAs and could win only one of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. None of its local leaders have popular appeal in the state. Oram, a tribal leader from northern Sundergarh, has a strong grip in some of the tribal-dominated constituencies, but lacks any following in the coastal region that sends 71 MLAs to the assembly. Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who is credited with the organisational success of this weekend’s executive meeting, is widely seen as a CM face, but he hasn’t won too many elections himself. The state of the Congress is no different either. That gives Patnaik an enormous advantage, which the BJP hopes to counter by leaning on the Prime Minister’s popularity. We will have to wait and see if brand Modi can swing it in yet another state.