Election watch

Facing newly ascendant BJP, Naveen Patnaik is taking no chances for the 2019 Odisha election

His Biju Janata Dal is hunkering down, though the Congress is muddling along as usual.

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.