The unprecedented electoral victory of BJP in Odisha’s local body elections has changed the political equation in the state. BJP has become the No 2, political force in Odisha, replacing the grand old party of the country, the Congress, which till recently was the main opposition party in the state. Not only this, for the first time after 17 years, it has posed a formidable challenge to Naveen Patnaik-led BJD party and its government. Naveen Patnaik, who is continuing in his fourth term as a Chief Minister, has never faced such electoral debacle as he is witnessing today in just concluded three-tier panchayati raj elections. Though BJD has maintained its No. 1 status by winning maximum number of seats in zilla parishad, it has lost more than 180 seats in comparison 2012 panchayat elections. The trends of this election show that ruling BJD is slowly losing ground. Except its predominant position in coastal areas of the state, Naveen has suffered a severe setback in western Odisha districts and in south and north Odisha districts. While BJD has been able to form zilla parishads in 16 out of 30 districts (in 2012 it had formed zilla parishads in 28 districts), BJP has got majority in 8 districts ( earlier it had none) and Congress has won only one district (it had 2 in 2012) but has become single largest party in two other districts.
According to the latest figures– out of 849 (853) seats BJD has won 473 seats, BJP 297, INC 60 and others 16 including independents, CPI, CPI (M) and JMM. Results of four seats are yet to be declared. During 2012 panchayat elections, of the 854 total zilla parishad seats barring 3 vacant seats, polling was held for 851 seats of which BJD got 651 seats, INC candidates won in 128 seats and BJP had only 36 seats besides JMM 11, CPI 2, CPI (M) 1 and Independents in 22 seats.
This time pre-poll and post-poll violence took ugly turn with killing of politically opponents increased to more than five cases besides the regular incidents of house burning, group clash etc. In most of cases both BJP and Congress alleged the involvement of ruling BJD workers.
This time polling was conducted for 853 zilla parishad seats, 6801 seats in panchayat samitis, 6802 sarapanch seats, 92029 ward members. Of these elections for only zilla parishad seats were conducted on party symbols and all others were on independent basis. Fifty per cent seats have been reserved for women and on population basis posts are reserved for women, OBC, ST and SC candidates. In 5th scheduled areas main posts are reserved for only ST candidates.
“We have never seen such violent clashes like this time and blatant use of money and muscle power”, said Panchanan Kanungo, former minister of state for finance and former BJD leader.
“Panchayat elections are increasingly becoming important for political parties and people are running shows at grassroots level because of varied reasons. One of the aspects is the elected representatives are becoming the main link between people and MLAs & MPs of the area. Secondly, more and more money is being pumped into rural areas through different state and central government schemes like MGNREGAs,” added Mr Kanungo.
For a party that was long-ridiculed as the ‘signboard party’ in Odisha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory message at an election rally at Kannauj recently must have come as music to BJP leaders in the state. Had it not been the unexpected success of the party in the first two phases of the panchayat elections, Modi would perhaps never have thought of Odisha in the midst of an election rally in Uttar Pradesh.
Amidst all these, the rise of BJP in panchayat polls has delivered a severe blow to both BJD and Congress in the state. On the one hand, where BJP has encashed Odisha election success to influence voters in UP and celebrated Vijaya Divas across the state on February 25th only to galvanize the party rank and file for the bigger battle of 2019 assembly and general elections. On the other hand, BJD has accused BJP of creating unnecessary hype of a small victory which has nothing to do with popular support enjoyed by Naveen Patnaik and BJD party. BJD-BJP bickering took ugly turn when on February 24, 2017 Prime Minister dubbed Odisha a state of poverty, unemployment, starvation deaths in his election rally in UP and Dharmendra Pradhan accused Odisha Government of non-functioning, being anti-people and of its all round failure through conducting a press conference in National Capital, New Delhi along with Union Cabinet Minister Jual Oram and State Party Prabhari Aruna Singh. BJD was quick in responding to the allegations of BJP. A media conference conducted at party headquarters in Bhubaneswar addressed by two junior ministers Sanjay Das Burma and Arun Sahu along with Member of Parliament Pinaki Mishra turned down BJP’s allegations and claimed BJD is still number one, people of the state have reposed their faith in Naveen Patnaik’s leadership and BJD party. “If seeing this small victory, BJP is dreaming to form the government in the state in 2019, it will be kind of day dream,” said Das Burma.
BJP, which had been alliance partner of BJD for nine years from 2000 to 2009, was desperately trying to make its presence felt in all the districts organisationally after Naveen snapped its tie unilaterally just days before 2009 elections citing and blaming its alliance partner BJP for Kandhamal communal violence. Since then both parties were in loggerheads and BJP was after Naveen’s head continuously highlighting Naveen’s failure on different fronts. BJP got boost when NDA came to power under Narendra Modi’s leadership in 2014 with absolute majority. Though, BJP was going soft with Naveen on the run up to 2014 elections and even after that, but 2016 was the turning point for the party when Prime Minister visited the state three times within a year and party president Amit Shah twice in two years. Besides these, Union Minister of State for Petroleum & Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan’s frequent visits to state boosted the party workers morale and revived its lost ground. Apart from these, despite winning a single parliamentary seat of Sundargarh out of 21, during the 2014 general elections, Modi inducted Jual Oram as Union Cabinet Minister for Tribal Affairs and Dharmendra Pradhan as Minister of State with Independent Charge even though he was not elected from Odisha. Dharmendra Pradhan is the Rajya Sabha Member from Bihar.
The much-hyped Amit Shah’s Odisha visit in 2015 had proved a damp squib following his non-utterance of a single word against Naveen Patnaik, though party’s rank and file were all against Naveen’s alleged misrule and his involvement in chit fund scam. However, his second visit to the state on November 25 last year had energised party workers, where he had called party workers to overthrow this corrupt regime.
Interestingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has acknowledged and raised Odisha local polls victory at two public meetings in Kanauj and Gonda during Uttar Pradesh election campaign to woo voters. Though his Kanauj meeting speech was to thank rural voters of Odisha, his Gonda speech of 24th February created a fresh controversy following his description of poverty and starvation deaths. Prime Minister in his speech said, “You will find India’s poorest and poverty stricken districts in Odisha. The state is known for unemployment, poverty and starvation deaths, but now Odisha’s poor people are with BJP, as they have reposed their faith in us.”
Modi’s statement received strong reaction from the state. Both BJD and Congress reacted sharply within assembly and outside and said Modi must apologize for this statement, which has offended the state and its people. Even BJD legislators staged a dharana under Mahatma Gandhi’s statue. BJP, on the other hand, has supported Modi’s statement and questioned — Is it not the reality that children are dying due to malnutrition in Nagada village and Japanese encephalitis in Malkangiri? Has Dana Majhi not carried his wife’s dead body as hospital in Kalahandi denied ambulance to him? Is it not a shame for the state, when its Chief Minister after having ruled the state for 17 long years is not able to speak state’s official language?
BJP’s victory is being attributed to the frequent visits of Dharmendra Pradhan to the state and support to Modi’s demonetisation drive, besides failure of BJD government on many fronts.
While speaking to this correspondent, Sajjan Sharma, chief spokesperson of BJP ruled it out as small victory. “It is the outcome of our two and half year’s continuous campaign in popularising and taking it to people Narendra Modi government’s pro-people policies and schemes and exposing the unjust, crippled, immature and non-functioning Naveen Patnaik government in the state,” said Sharma. He further added Congress had already lost before the election process started. People reposed their faith in us.
BJD, on the other hand has claimed its vote percentage is intact. It had polled 42 per cent votes in last elections and won 60 per cent of seats. Congress which had polled 29 per cent votes lost at least 15 per cent to BJP, argued a BJD leader.
Speaking to Uday India, BJD vice-president Surya Narayan Patra said because of transfer of votes from Congress’ traditional base to BJP candidates BJP’s seats has increased and so is the percentage of vote share from 29 per cent to more than 35 per cent.
To a question on BJD losing ground Patra said that BJP was in second position in Sambalpur, Bolangir, Bargarh, Kalahandi, Malkangiri and Mayurbhanj and the winning margin was very less in last general elections and much before that during 2009 these districts were Congress parties traditional bastion. BJD had won only in last elections. So there is no reason for celebration for BJP.
“Neither Naveen Patnaik’s image dented nor Narendra Mod’s image appreciated. This is a temporary setback and we will be able to revive our organisation within course of time. So there is nothing to worry,” added Patra.
When asked whether Congress leaders conceded the defeat by blaming it to the indecisiveness of high command and incapable state leadership. “Due to weak organization, ever deepening factionalism and shortage of money, we have suffered a
severe debacle,” said Ganeswar Behera, former minister and a senior Congress leader. “We could have revived the organisation and our lost fortune, if the high command had taken a right decision in right time and learnt lessons from past mistakes,” added Behera.
According to political observers this election was a litmus test for the ruling BJD in the run up to 2019 general elections for both the state assembly and Parliament. It was treated as the semifinal as more than 2.6 crore voters out of 3 crorers were participating in the elections.
The alleged involvement of Chief Minister’s office in multi-thousand crore chit fund scam, involvement of BJD MPs, MLAs, leaders and bureaucrats at top level where at least two million people have been duped to the tunes of thousand crores, Shah Commission’s inquiry into the multimillion crores mining scam, government land grabbing by rich and people, multi crore dal scam, suicide of farmers, increasing atrocities aganist women, killing of innocent tribals in the name of Maoists, large scale corruption in distribution of ration cards, alleged molestation of women in the name of Chief Minister’s security, alleged sexual escapade of Bhubaneswar mayor and all-round failure of the government in controlling law and order in the state etc. are some of issues that went against BJD’s poll prospects, says political observers.
Naveen, who had survived during last 17 years’ elections after elections, got a body blow this time and Congress lost its traditional and predominant voter base of KBK and tribal districts in which 50 per cent seats have gone to BJP.
Interestingly, this time BJD had engaged a galaxy of leading artists from Odia film industry to woo voters; they had fanned across the state. “They had succeeded to pull crowds rather than votes,” said Sabar Tarai, a scribe with a vernacular daily, based in Ganjam district. Naveen Patnaik’s absence in electioneering also helped the opposition especially BJP to spearhead its campaign strategy. BJP, which still was maintaining guarded silence on Naveen’s misdeeds up to 2015, geared up its anti-Naveen rants after Bihar, West Bengal and Assam elections when both Modi and Amit Shah felt Odisha should be next state after Assam to realise its presence in eastern India. That is ostensibly the reason both Amit Shah and Modi paid frequent visits to the state.
Another aspect of BJP’s victory could be the Naveen’s dilly-dallying attitude and indecisiveness towards the Centre, said a political observer. On the one hand, Naveen Patnaik is blaming everything on Centre and raising the slogan of central negligence, on the other, he supported demonetization and remained silent on many national issues. Both Congress and BJP are still critical of Naveen’s handling of Mahanadi issue. When the state government has nothing to hide, why it remained silent on repeated reminders of the Centre and Central Water Commission, alleged BJP. Even Naveen could not respond to the statement of Chhattisgarh CM when he was blaming here to the failure of Odisha government during electioneering, asked an activist working on water rights in Mahandi basin.
by Sudarshan Chhotoray