The Assembly election in Odisha, to be held simultaneously with the parliamentary election, is nearly two years away. But the state’s three main parties seem to be gearing up for the battle for 2019.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has kicked off its “Mission 120+”, targeting to win over 120 of the 147 Assembly seats. In response, the ruling Biju Janata Dal has set itself a more ambitious target of 123 seats, a feat achieved by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s father Biju Patnaik in 1990. The Congress, the main opposition party, has set sights on 85 seats, a modest target compared to its rivals but well above the half-way mark of 74.

After barging through the backdoor to power in neighbouring Bihar, the BJP has stepped up political activities in Odisha. Taking off from its success in Zilla Parishad elections in February, when it pushed the Congress to third position, the BJP is vigorously working to expand into regions where it does not have much of a presence. But it is running into an equally vigorous, more cautious and well-prepared Biju Janata Dal at every step. The two parties ran a coalition government from 2000 to 2009.

Going toe-to-toe

BJP chief Amit Shah arrived in Odisha for a three-day visit on September 6 to review the Mo Booth Sabuthu Mazbooth (My Booth is the Strongest) programme, which is meant to strengthen the party’s support base across the state’s 36,000 polling booths. “At least four workers are monitoring party work in each booth,” BJP spokesperson Sajjan Sharma explained the programme. “The micro-level approach will give BJP the edge over others.”

Shah’s visit coincided with Patnaik inaugurating two medical colleges in the Adivasi-dominated Koraput and Mayurbhanj districts on September 5-6.

The BJP’s growth from just 36 Zilla Parishad seats in 2012 to 297 now has alarmed the Biju Janata Dal, prompting it to chalk out an elaborate counter-strategy.

The Biju Janata Dal still dominates Zilla Parishads. It won 220 of the 307 posts of block chairman for which elections were held in February against the Congress’s 45 and the BJP’s 28. So, political observers were surprised by Patnaik’s quick response to the BJP’s relative success in that election. He held a series of meetings with Biju Janata Dal leaders and workers to examine why the party had performed poorly in parts of western and northern Odisha. He discussed freely with grassroots workers for hours on end, a rarity for a chief minister known for avoiding the party’s foot soldiers and depending on bureaucrats. It was on the basis of feedback received at those discussions that he dropped 10 ministers, assigning them party work, and inducted 12 new people in the biggest reshuffle in his ministry since coming to power in 2000.

At the same time, the Biju Janata Dal launched the Ama Gaon Ama Bikash (Our Village Our Development) campaign, organising block-level workshops and training camps for grassroots workers to make them battle-ready for 2019. While the BJP’s focus is on the booth, the Biju Janata Dal’s is on the ward (generally, four wards comprise a booth). “A huge mass contact programme is underway that will see our cadres touching each and every house in the state,” Biju Janata Dal leader and Rajya Sabha MP Pratap Keshari Deb said.

These programmes seem to have re-energised the Biju Janata Dal’s rank and file. Recently, in bye-elections to a Zilla Parishad seat in Nuapada district and two municipality wards in Deogarh district, the Biju Janata Dal won comfortably, puncturing the BJP’s claims of closing in on its erstwhile coalition partner. The BJP’s state chief Basanta Panda represents Nuapada in the Assembly, while its legislator Nitesh Gangadeb represents Deogarh. To Panda’s apparent embarrassment, the BJP finished third behind the Congress in Nuapada.

The story numbers tell

In the 2000 Assembly election, when the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal allied to dislodge the Congress from power, the BJD won 68 seats and the BJP 38. The Congress was reduced from 80 seats to 26. Four years later, Patnaik called an early election to coincide it with the general election. While the BJP-led central government lost the general election, the Biju Janata Dal-BJP coalition in Odisha romped home with 93 seats – 61 for the Biju Janata Dal, 32 for the BJP – even though the Congress marginally improved its tally to 38 seats.

After breaking off with the BJP, Patnaik showed that it was the national party which had been piggy-backing on his popularity, rather than the other way round, by leading the Biju Janata Dal to an emphatic victory in the 2009 election, bagging 103 seats. The BJP managed to hold on to just six seats. The Congress too slipped to 27 seats. In the 2014 election, the Biju Janata Dal improved its tally to 117, its highest so far, leaving the Congress with 16 seats and the BJP 10.

In the simultaneous general elections, too, the Biju Janata Dal did consistently well, winning 11 Lok Sabha seats in 2004, 14 in 2009 and 20 in 2014 out of the state’s 21 seats. The Congress and BJP have performed erratically. The Congress won two Lok Sabha seats in 2004, six in 2009 and drew a blank in 2014. The BJP got six seats in 2004, none in 2009 and just one in 2014.

This electoral reality is why the BJP’s national leadership kept Patnaik in good humour all these years – despite his policy of keeping “equal distance from BJP and Congress” in the Parliament and outside – even while the party’s local leaders kept targeting his “corrupt and inefficient” government.

In turn, the Biju Janata Dal kept its distance as the BJP worked, especially in the last three years, to edge past the Congress as the main rival to the ruling party. The Biju Janata Dal seemed content so long as the BJP hurt only the Congress. The BJP’s Zilla Parishad success, however, jolted the ruling party awake.

Struggling for unity

Where does this leave the Congress, which lost power to Patnaik 17 years ago and still seems to lack fight? The Congress has barely offered any opposition to the government, not least because it is riven with divisions. In 2011, the Congress’s central leadership chose Niranjan Patnaik, a former state minister, to lead the party in Odisha. He made an impression, although it was largely because his brother Soumya Ranjan Patnaik’s media house, which owns the mass circulated newspaper Sambad and Kanak TV, helped project him as a resourceful person who was trying to revive the fortunes of the party. Less than three years later, in a surprise move, Niranjan Patnaik was replaced, apparently at the instance of his rivals within the party, by Prasad Harichandan.

Harichandan began his term with the slogan Mu Nuhe Aame (Not I, We All), meaning team work. But he failed to bring together the warring factions and gain the confidence of senior leaders, and soon found himself isolated. As the infighting continued, the party performed dismally in the 2014 Assembly and general elections.

His rivals promptly asked for Harichandan to be removed. Most of the party’s MLAs, including Leader of the Opposition Narasingha Mishra, regularly visited Delhi to urge Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi to sack Harichandan and “save the party”.

Initially, the Congress leadership did not pay heed to the demand. But after the Zilla Parishad debacle, efforts are being made to put the house in order, and a change of guard is in the offing. Niranjan Patnaik is the frontrunner; he has the backing of most of the party MLAs and workers.

Congress leaders, however, feel that even if Niranjan Patnaik is appointed the president, he may not have enough time to make a difference. The Congress, though, still enjoys a big advantage over the BJP: it has a uniform support base, even though it is declining, across Odisha. The BJP has a committed base in only a few regions, and it has only now started to expand elsewhere.

“Only checking the erosion in the support base across Odisha will give a fillip to the Congress and boost our performance in the next election,” said a senior party leader. “Besides, the backing of a media house [Soumya Ranjan Patnaik’s] will build up the right perception about the Congress, and not the BJP, being the main opposition in Odisha.”

Whether the Congress can hold on to this advantage until the election, however, remains to be seen.