Can the BJP wrest Odisha from Naveen Patnaik?s BJD?

Can the BJP wrest Odisha from Naveen Patnaik?s BJD?

Intro: The BJP may be expanding its footprint all over the country, but it will find it difficult to beat a politician like Naveen, who after four terms in office, has an unsullied reputation.  nnBy Achyut Nath JhannAs the 2019 Lok Sabha is fast approaching, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is focusing on the eastern front as it knows very well that replicating its performance in the north and west will be difficult. The east front comprising West Bengal, Odisha and seven northeastern states contributes 88 seats to Lok Sabha, out of which the BJP won only 11 seats. A key aspect of the BJP?s electoral strategy is now to expand its footprint in West Bengal and Odisha in the East where entrenched regional satraps, Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik, rule with virtually no rivals.nnFor the record, Odisha, which went to polls simultaneously along with the Lok Sabha election in 2014, weathered the Narendra Modi storm, with BJP winning just one Lok Sabha seat. On the other hand, the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) won 20 out of 21 seats in Odisha. BJD also won a massive majority of 112 out of 147 seats in the Odisha assembly. Presently, the BJD has 118 MLAs, while the Congress and the BJP have 15 and 10 legislators, respectively.nnIf we look at the BJD?s consistent performance during last two decades of electoral politics, the regional party reversed the national trend. In 2004, when Vajpayee-led NDA was ousted from power in Centre, BJD-BJP front won both Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. In 2009, though there was no alliance and the Congress-led UPA came to power at the Centre for the second time, BJD alone got maximum seats in both Lok Sabha and Assembly seats in Odisha. Interestingly, after breaking away from BJP, Naveen got more seats in both 2009 and 2014 assembly elections than what the alliance had got earlier.nnIn 2014 also, when the Modi wave was engulfing the whole country, it was completely reverse in Odisha. BJD got 20 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats. It also got more seats in assembly.nnHowever, in the past few years, the BJP has made considerable inroads and performed well in the panchayat polls. In the national executive held in April last year, Modi named Odisha as his party?s next battleground. Modi?s assessment would have stemmed from the result in panchayat polls two months? back in February when the BJP fortunes changed after it increased its vote share from 15% to 32%.nnA nine-fold jump in zila parishad seats and a drubbing of the JD, led by Naveen Patnaik in tribal districts were enough to signal the arrival of the BJP as the main opposition. Juxtaposed against the assembly and Lok Sabha seats, the panchayat poll results would have meant that the BJP can win 7 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats and 45 of the 147 Assembly seats. Buoyed by this victory, Shah outlined the party?s game-plan when he unveiled the Mission 120 plan (winning 120 of the 147 assembly seats). The party started poaching leaders from both the BJD and the Congress and tried expanding its base with help of new turncoats.nnHowever, it was Bijepur, an assembly constituency in the western Odisha district of Bargarh which showcased why Patnaik stands in the way of the BJP?s expansion drive. The BJD won by a massive margin of around 42,000 votes and forced a resurgent BJP to look for other means to defeat this regional powerhouse in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. At the same time, without showing any complacency, Patnaik has stepped up his efforts to connect to the masses.nnAfter the Karnataka fiasco that resulted in the formation of government by JD(S)-Congress coalition despite emerging as the single largest party in assembly elections, the BJP has intensified its focus on Odisha. As the Congress is relegated to the third position, the real electoral battle is between the BJP and the BJD, the state?s ruling party.nnBJP president Amit Shah has begun his campaign for 2019. Shah’s visit comes as part of an agenda to strengthen the party’s voter base in Odisha, ahead of the upcoming elections in the state, as well as the general elections next year. Shah undertook a day-long visit on July 1 to Odisha and claimed that party would ‘sweep’ the forthcoming Odisha Assembly polls in 2019nnEarlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen Cuttack as the venue of his rally to mark the completion of four years of the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre. By projecting the central government?s achievements before the people of Odisha, Modi sounded the poll bugle.nnIn the last couple of years, the battle lines between the BJD and BJP have grown sharper. The BJP leadership has given Dharmendra Pradhan, senior party leader and Union petroleum, natural gas and skill development minister, a free rein to chalk out a plan of action to boost the party?s prospects in the state. The objective is to pose a serious challenge.  The BJP plans to launch a highly aggressive campaign as assembly polls draw near in the coming months. The strategy is to demolish Naveen Patnaik?s carefully crafted image. ?He is no saint and he has presided over mega scams and the decline of the state. We will expose him for what he is,? says Pradhan.nnBut this is easier said than done. The BJD?s success in the recent Bijepur by-election, followed by two wins in the local body elections of Hindol and Atabira, both traditional BJP bastions, seem to vindicate BJD?s claims of being the number one party in the state ?with no near rivals?.nnAccording to a BJD leader who fell out with Naveen Patnaik over various issues and has been suspended from the party, ?A major reason behind Patnaik?s successive electoral successes is the aura of stability that he successfully projected. Odisha was wracked by political instability – frequent changes of chief minister by the Congress – and corruption, but Naveen has been able to provide stable governance.?nnEven today, Patnaik is largely seen as a simple person who was thrust into the hurly-burly of politics after the death of his father Biju Patnaik, who is widely respected as the architect of modern-day Odisha. He stays in the simple ?Naveen Niwas? and has a spartan lifestyle.nnSince parting ways with the BJP in 2009, Patnaik has never really relished being in any group and has always reveled in his splendid isolation.  Perhaps he knows he is sitting pretty and tying up with other parties would only mean sacrificing a few seats that his party is good enough to win. BJD doctrine of ?equi-distant from BJP and Congress is a ploy to keep his options open with either of the two national parties. This also explains away his absence in Bengaluru in HD Kumaraswamy?s swearing-in ceremony where who? who from the Opposition had gathered.nnThe BJP may be expanding its footprint all over the country, but it will find it difficult to beat a politician like Naveen who after four terms in office has an unsullied reputation.  However, Patnaik is aware of the BJP?s rise in the panchayat polls and the saffron party?s game plan. He has been on a people-connect drive, regularly interacting with panchayat functionaries through a programme called Ama Gaon Ama Vikash (My village, my development). And then there are the various welfare schemes that the state government launches from time to time, like rice at one Re 1 a kilo, shoes, umbrellas, bicycles, uniforms, free books, free medicines, sanitary napkins and many more, plus doles to farmers, pregnant women, aged and for funerals. These have created a huge support base for Naveen Patnaik in Odisha.nnChief Minister?s initiative to sanction funds for development works on-the-spot seems to be a hit with the people. Patnaik has also been routinely overseeing development works and is constantly checking the progress of his pet projects in housing and road infrastructure. Similarly, through a government-funded initiative, ?Biju Yuva Vahini? for promoting youth at the grassroots level, the party is using its workers to reach out to people.nnThe BJD sources say that in the run-up to the 2019 polls, the party will start a Mahanadi Suraksha rally from May 16 covering 15 districts, many of them in western Odisha, where its MPs, MLAs and panchayat-level functionaries would do a soft campaign for the party. Party?s formidable election machinery in 2019 will ensure the party can stop any possible resurgence of BJP. ?They may get Modi to campaign in Odisha and get media mileage through press conferences, but do they have even 147 candidates for the assembly polls? We have functionaries at the lowest levels. Besides, who would they project as chief minister?? asks a senior party leader.nnHowever, KV Singh Deo, leader of BJP Legislature Party, says that party is working on a narrative that would appeal to the masses.nnThe Congress, marginalized since the BJP?s resurgence in the state, could also play a spoilsport for any anti-BJD effort. There?s the change of guard in the State Congress. The party last month made former state minister Niranjan Patnaik, the state chief. If the new PCC chief can stem the exodus of Congress votes to rival parties, as happened in Bijepur by-poll, it may hurt BJP more than BJD. If the Congress emerges stronger in the coming months, it may lead to triangular contests in tribal and coastal areas, thus dividing the anti-BJD votes and checking the growth of the BJP. However, if the BJP can work on its organisational weakness, it would pose a huge challenge for the BJD.nnNaveen Patnaik is no stranger to BJP’s methods but has a tough task at hand with public perception also building up against ‘tainted’ BJD legislators and MPs, and a high-voltage campaign against his party and government. Ruling uninterruptedly for four terms, the party finds itself on the backfoot with controversies like the chit fund and mining scams, deteriorating law and order situation, increasing farmer suicides and continued migration casting a shadow over it. The BJP is now going all out to revive and expand its support base in the state. In addition, the BJD government?s image has taken a beating following the arrest of some of its MPs and MLAs and a string of summons issued by the CBI and the ED against some legislators. A recent case being the Enforcement Directorate summoning and questioning Pranab Balabantaray, legislator from Dharmasal (Jeypore), about his alleged clandestine deal with Cuttack?s notorious Dhalasamanta brothers. Earlier, Mayurbhanj MP Ramachandra Hansda and former Keonjhar MLA Subarna Nayak ? both belonging to the BJD ? and former BJP MLA Hitesh Kumar Bagartti, were arrested for defrauding investors in the Naba Diganta Capital Services. These arrests come close on the heels of the arrest of Pravat Tripathy, another BJD MLA from Banki. Tripathy was accused of having links to the Artha Tatwa Group scam. One of the main planks of its campaign is to highlight the Patnaik government?s 18-year tenure of ?misgovernance?.nnThe Odisha chief minister has launched a multi-pronged strategy to meet the political challenge posed by BJP. An important part of BJD?s campaign is to emphasise the Modi government?s? indifference? to resolving the Mahanadi river water dispute between Chhattisgarh and Odisha and rejecting the state?s genuine demand for ?Special Category? status. Yet, there?s no doubt that since its inception in 1997, the BJD currently seems to be facing its toughest challenge from the combined opposition of Congress and BJP. Consider, for instance, the BJP?s improved performance and revival as the second largest party in last year?s panchayat polls. In fact, the BJP?s aggression has pushed Patnaik to adopt multiple strategies to counter the party?s growing influence. Of late, 100 new projects have been sanctioned.nnWith Lok Sabha and assembly elections in the state approaching near, Naveen Patnaik has a tough task at hand ? he will have to fight the public perception battle about tainted party legislators as well as counter the BJP?s high-voltage campaign against his party and government.nn nn nn nn nn 

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