On a sunny April day in Kumbikota village in southern Odisha’s Rayagada Assembly segment, a few old men were engaged in a heated discussion on whether to vote for the Biju Janata Dal MLA in the upcoming elections.

They said that they did not have any complaint against Odisha chief minister and Biju Janata Dal chief Naveen Patnaik but were angry with their MLA, who also used to be a minister. “Our MLA is useless,” said one of them. “He has never visited us after getting elected in 2014. We would have rejected him outright but are still undecided about dumping him considering Patnaik.”

Odisha will vote in simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in four phases, on April 11, April 18, April 23 and April 29.

Like the old men in Kumbikota village, several residents of three Assembly constituencies that are part of three separate Lok Sabha constituencies in south and west Odisha – which vote in the first and second phases – were also dissatisfied with their local representatives. But here too, Patnaik, who has ruled Odisha for the last 19 years, still commanded their respect and confidence.

This respect is what Patnaik hopes will carry him into his fifth consecutive term as Odisha chief minister, a feat not achieved by any politician in the state.

This story has been reported from three Assembly constituencies in three separate parliamentary constituencies.

19 years of Patnaik

Patnaik has grown in popularity in every election since he rode to power in Odisha in 2000, after dethroning the Congress. In his first two terms from 2000 to 2009, he led a coalition of the Biju Janata Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party. In 2004, he dissolved the state Assembly a year before its tenure, after which simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections were held.

In 2009, he broke ties with the BJP after communal violence targeting Christians broke out in Kandhamal. This was triggered by the murder of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader by Maoists. In elections that year, Patnaik rode back to power, with his party bagging 103 out of 147 Assembly seats and 14 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats.

In 2014, when a Narendra Modi wave had swept over most of India, Patnaik led the Biju Janata Dal to another victory, bettering his 2009 performance with 117 Assembly seats and 20 Lok Sabha seats.

This year, it is clear that Patnaik, 72, has a tougher fight on hand. He has to fix anti-incumbency against non-performing party MLAs in pockets, and also take on an aggressive BJP.

Naveen Patnaik has been ruling Odisha since 2000.

BJP’s Operation Odisha

After the Modi government came to power at the Centre in 2014, the BJP drew up a plan to capture Odisha, West Bengal and the North East states as part of its “look east” policy. It is now hoping to make up in this eastern region the seats it is expected to lose in North India in the upcoming elections, particularly Uttar Pradesh.

Prime Minister Modi and almost all Union ministers have made whirlwind tours of Odisha in the past five years to help build a support base for the party in the state.

In 2015, BJP president Amit Shah asked the party’s state leadership to enrol 40 lakh cadres to achieve “Mission 120+” – which targeted bagging 120 Assembly seats to overthrow the Patnaik government.

In the 2017 zilla parishad elections, the BJP rattled the Biju Janata Dal by edging past a dormant Congress, Odisha’s main Opposition party. Though the Biju Janata Dal maintained its supremacy by winning more than 50% of the zilla parishad seats – 473 out of 846 – the BJP won 296 seats, a huge improvement from its meagre tally of 36 in 2012.

Buoyed by the BJP’s success, Shah directed state leaders to strengthen the BJP’s voter outreach programme “Mo Booth Saboothu Mazbooth”, or “My booth is the strongest”, across the state’s 36,000 polling booths.

Modi speaks at a rally in Koraput, Odisha, on March 29. (Photo credit: BJP4India/Twitter).

Patnaik took the BJP’s zilla parishad success seriously and held several brainstorming sessions with party leaders and grassroots workers to find out why the party suffered losses in some northern and western Odisha districts.

He dropped ministers, assigned them party work and launched the Biju Janata Dal’s voter outreach programme, “Ama Gaon Ama Bikash”, or “Our village, our development”.

This had an impact in the bye-election for the Bijepur Assembly seat in 2018, when the Biju Janata Dal trounced the BJP by a huge margin of 40,000 votes. The Congress, which held the seat, was relegated to a distant third position.

This constituency is in Bargarh district, where the BJP had won 25 out of 34 zilla parishad seats.

People eat lunch at an Ahar Kendra in Baliguda. (Photo credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu).

Patnaik’s stronghold

The Bijepur bye-election results could be read as a pointer to the 2019 election results: an all pervasive BJD, and a resurgent BJP bulldozing a tired and resource-starved Congress.

The phenomenon is markedly visible in Ganjam, Patnaik’s home district and the Biju Janata Dal’s impregnable fort since he first came to power.

Ganjam has 13 Assembly seats. Patnaik has been winning continuously from one of them – Hinjili – for the past 19 years. The Assembly segments are part of three Lok Sabha constituencies Aska, Berhampur and Kandhamal.

Traditionally, the Congress and Communist Party of India have been the main adversaries of the Biju Janata Dal in Ganjam. But this time, more BJP flags flutter across the length and breadth of this district while the Congress and Communist Party of India are almost invisible.

The BJP, particularly Modi, has caught the imagination of the urban youth in the district. They have no aversion towards Patnaik but they talk of voting for Modi in the Lok Sabha elections.

A young man near the bus stand at Khalikote, an Assembly segment in Aska Lok Sabha constituency, said he would vote for the Biju Janata Dal in the Assembly election but give Modi his vote for the Lok Sabha elections.

“This time the fight is going to be between the BJD and BJP,” said RK Sahu, a resident of Hinjili. “However, the BJP has no chance at all. Nevertheless it has replaced the Congress here.”

On March 18, Patnaik surprised everyone by announcing that he will contest from Bijepur in addition to his traditional seat. This is the first time he is contesting from two seats.

The BJP maintained that Patnaik opted for a second seat because he was feeling insecure in Hinjili. TV studios subsequently held long discussions about the loss of support to the Biju Janata Dal in Ganjam.

But at the grassroots, people laugh off such analyses.

Hinjili, once a sleepy small town, has grown exceptionally over the last two decades with wide roads, markets, better educational institutions and healthcare facilities. People here thank Patnaik for everything.

“Maybe, the BJP candidate against Patnaik has 1% chance of winning,” said a tea stall vendor at a village a couple of kilometres before Hinjili, with a chuckle.

Political observers say Patnaik has gone to Bijepur as a direct challenge to the BJP, which has built a strong base in Bargarh district after its emphatic zilla parishad win there.

In normal circumstances, the BJP would have had a fair chance of winning the Bargarh Lok Sabha seat and some Assembly seats under it. But after Patnaik’s decision to fight from Bijepur, the political dynamics have completely changed in the Biju Janata Dal’s favour.

Another Lok Sabha constituency where the Biju Janata Dal is on the back foot is Kalahandi, also in western Odisha. Here the Modi factor is more visible than any other areas of the state, and it cuts across all age groups.

In the zilla parishad elections here, the BJP won 33 out of 36 seats while the Biju Janata Dal drew a blank. On April 8, Patnaik went on a whirlwind tour of Kalahandi Lok Sabha constituency to regain lost ground.

Patnaik is aware of the BJP’s growing power in the state and is leaving no stone unturned to counter it. He has replaced many sitting MLAs and given tickets to seven women candidates for the Lok Sabha, in keeping with his promise to set aside 33% tickets for women.

His campaign plan for the elections includes 150 rallies – at least one in each of the state’s 147 Assembly constituencies – to energise party cadres, who are in danger being poached by the BJP.

Biju Janata Dal cadres prepare to campaign in Khalikote Assembly constituency, which is part of Aska Lok Sabha constituency. (Photo credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu).

BJP chances

The BJP’s debacle in the Bijepur bye-election a year after its success in the zilla parishad elections has exposed the saffron party’s lack of leadership at the state level despite the abundance of resources at its disposal thanks to its government at the Centre.

Nearer the elections, it seems to have abandoned the cadre based “Mo Booth Sabuthu Mazbooth” programme and has been poaching leaders and workers from the Congress and Biju Janata Dal instead.

Many Biju Janata Dal leaders who have joined the BJP have been given tickets. At the same time, however, many BJP leaders who were ignored after new entrants were given preferential treatment have joined the Biju Janata Dal.

One major difference in these swaps is that Biju Janata Dal leaders who switched over to the BJP are mostly those who were denied tickets by Patnaik. “The BJP has taken all our discards and is under the illusion of winning elections with such liabilities,” said a Biju Janata Dal leader.

In coastal Odisha, the BJP has made inroads by drafting former MP and Patnaik’s bête noire Baijayant Panda, former Odisha police director general Prakash Mishra and former IAS officer Aparajita Sarangi. It is fielding them in high profile Lok Sabha seats – Panda from Kendrapara, Mishra from Cuttack and Sarangi from Bhubaneswar.

Women voters outnumber male voters in Odisha. (Photo credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu).

Women voters

The Biju Janata Dal’s stronghold over Odisha may be loosening a tiny bit because of localised anti-incumbency and the desertion of some party leaders, but Patnaik’s core voters – beneficiaries of scores of welfare schemes ushered in by the state government – still seem to be with him.

“There is no one else but Naveen,” said a group of people waiting for their lunch at an Ahar Kendra in Baliguda, an Assembly seat in Kandhamal Lok Sabha constituency. The canteen is part of a food subsidisation program run by the state government to provide a cheap lunch to the urban poor. It serves rice and dalma (a dish of dal with vegetables) for Rs 5 a plate.

But Patnaik’s trump card is the over 70 lakh women from self-help groups across Odisha who are being supported by the Odisha government’s flagship Mission Shakti scheme.

Launched in 2001, Mission Shakti is a flagship programme of the Odisha government to empower women by providing them with financial and technical support to start income generating activities. Under this scheme, Odisha offers women’s self-help groups interest-free loans and provides them with seed money among other things.

It does not look like the BJP or Congress has been able to breach this vote bank yet.

In 2014, more women voted in the elections than men in Odisha. They hold the key to the outcome of the 2019 elections too.