A divided Congress in Odisha and a weakening Bharatiya Janata Party has likely prompted Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to contest the upcoming Assembly and Lok Sabha elections on his own.
On January 9, Patnaik announced that his Biju Janata Dal will neither align with the BJP nor with the grand alliance of Opposition parties, which he was considering.
Patnaik, who has ruled Odisha since March 2000, is seeking a fifth consecutive term as chief minister in the state elections that are due in April or May along with the national elections.
In 2014, a similar strategy had resulted in an impressive victory for Patnaik. The Biju Janata Dal had won 117 of the 147 seats in the Odisha Assembly and 20 of the state’s 21 Lok Sabha seats. The results were a major improvement from the party’s 2009 performance and came despite strong opposition from the Narendra Modi-led BJP, Congress and his former mentor-turned-foe Pyarimohan Mohapatra. Mohapatra, who died in 2017, was a former civil servant who helped Patnaik craft several electoral victories in the state. He and Patnaik parted ways acrimoniously in 2012.
“At present, the grand alliance is not yet settled while the National Democratic Alliance’s boat is sinking which is the primary reason for his maintaining equidistance from these fronts,” said Surya Narayan Mishra, political commentator and former academic. “He [Patnaik] does not think that the grand alliance is strong enough and is fully aware that Narendra Modi is no longer a game changer, so it makes no sense for a smart politician like Patnaik to join hands with them.”
Political analysts say that the BJP has been on a downward slide in Odisha since its impressive performance in the panchayat elections in 2017, when it won 297 seats as compared to 36 in 2012. This showing had led to the impression that the BJP was edging out the Congress and was poised to emerge as a big threat to Patnaik. However, the saffron party failed to maintain that momentum. The Biju Janata Dal won the bye-elections in Bijepur in February with a margin of nearly 42,000 votes over its nearest rival, the BJP. Patnaik’s party also won the Bijatala panchayat bye-poll in December comfortably.
The BJP’s failure to create a strong leadership in the state has also hurt its chances of making sizeable gains in the upcoming elections, say political observers.
“Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan may be popular at the national level but one can’t say the same for him in the state,” said Dr Asima Sahu, who heads the political science department at Ravenshaw University, Cuttack. “Support for the BJP in the state seems to have dissipated after the panchayat elections victory.”
She added: “Even in western Odisha, which is considered to be the BJP’s stronghold, the party is slowly losing support. It is also a reflection of BJP’s loss of support at the national level.”
The BJP is clearly desperate to improve its chances in Odisha. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit the state on January 15 to announce schemes worth Rs 1,545 crore. This will be his third visit to the state in as many weeks. This indicates that the BJP is hoping that the coastal state (as well as the North East) will help it make up for the expected losses in the Hindi heartland in the Lok Sabha elections.
But Mishra is sceptical about this happening. “It is unlikely that BJP will benefit much from these announcements since they have no strong leaders at the state level to match Patnaik’s stature,” he said.
The Congress is hardly a strong opponent either. Though it seems to be on a resurgent path nationally after its victories in Assembly elections in three states in November-December, deep divisions within its Odisha unit rule out the possibility that it will put up a tough fight against the Biju Janata Dal.
The party’s leaders admit as much. “For us, it is more about survival since we were a deeply divided unit,” said Pradeep Majhi, the Congress’ state working president. “There is some sort of stability now and we are certain of performing better than the BJP.”
Majhi admitted that the Congress will be fighting the BJP for second position, adding that defeating the saffron party was his party’s top priority. “Farmers, youth and business community are particularly angry with the BJP’s national policies, which should help win back our supporters who had moved to the BJP in 2014,” said Majhi.
A Biju Janata Dal leader who asked not to be identified cited this to explain why he thought Patnaik had made the right decision to go it alone. “In these circumstances, how does it make sense to align with any of these parties?” asked the leader. “Our party is safer if it stays aloof from these two parties. Why join any of these fronts, take blame for their misdeeds and hurt our goodwill among people in the state? While others are waxing and waning, Patnaik is only waxing.”
Despite being in power for nearly two decades, there are no clear signs that people in the state are unhappy with Biju Janata Dal rule, with experts saying Patnaik still remains the favourite to win the elections.
The Odisha chief minister’s pro-poor schemes have helped him maintain his iron grip over the state, claim his rivals and political observers.
BJP spokesperson Dilip Mohanty cited Patnaik’s Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation or KALIA as one such scheme, saying it has been well received by the people. Launched in December, the Rs 100 billion scheme has been pegged as an alternative to loan waivers for distressed farmers. Intended to provide financial, livelihood and cultivation support along with insurance support to small, marginal and landless farmers, the scheme is expected to benefit 92% farmers in the state.
Though Mohanty raised objections about the implementation of the scheme, and called it a jumla or gimmick, he agreed that this and other pro-poor schemes of the state government could end up benefiting a large section of people, which could hurt the BJP’s chances.
Patnaik has announced several other schemes to woo voters. While the Mo Jami Mo Diha or the My Home, My Homestead scheme ,launched in 2007, helps the landless secure land pattas or title deeds, Mission Shakti, launched in 2001, aims to empower women through Self Help Groups. Odisha’s Re 1 per kg of rice scheme and a programme to provide food to the homeless twice a day have also helped Patnaik maintain his popularity in the state.
In addition to this, Patnaik is making efforts to improve his image and connect to every section of the electorate via social media. “These elections will see him yet again winning most of the seats considering how much he is investing in his image building,” said Sahu. Patnaik is shedding his shy and reclusive image to ensure he further consolidates his position and has enough bargaining power at the end of the elections, she said.
No one from the Biju Janata Dal or outside is sure of whom Patnaik will support at the Centre after the elections. But they agree that he will certainly use his position strategically to take a decision in the best interest of his home state.