In this festive season, Bijepur Assembly segment under the Bargarh Lok Sabha seat " going to the polls for the third time in less than two years " is all set to witness a high voltage electoral tussle. For all the three major political parties in Odisha, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), its principal opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, Bijepur seat has a lot of significance.
However, with the Congress party, yet to come to terms after its pathetic show in the coastal state in the last few elections, it's widely believed, the real battle is going to be fought between the BJP nominee Sanat Kumar Gartia and Rita Sahu of the BJD. Congress has fielded Dillip Kumar Panda as its candidate.
Though Gartia had unsuccessfully contested the Assembly elections 2019 (held simultaneously with the General Elections) from Bijepur against Odisha chief minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik, he managed to poll 53,000 votes (29 percent). On the other hand, Rita Sahu had been elected from this seat on BJD ticket in the 2018 bypoll (following the death of her husband and former Congress legislator Subal Sahu).
As Naveen vacated Bijepur and retained the Hinjili seat in Ganjam district from where he has been winning since 2000, the bypoll was necessitated. Polling in Bijepur is scheduled for 21 October.
"It's a fight between the BJD and BJP. But, given the growing bonhomie between the two after the aggressive battle in 2019 General Elections, it will be interesting to see how they are going to fight it out in Bijepur. Congress is nowhere in the picture. Denied a ticket, Congress nominee in Bijepur in 2019 General Elections, Ripunath Seth has publicly made his displeasure known," said senior journalist Prasanna Mohanty. "Like in the past, the BJD will use all its might to win the seat. It knows better than other parties how to win elections in Odisha," said Mohanty.
As far as preparedness and strategising for the Bijepur bypoll is concerned, the regional party has been well ahead of its national counterparts. BJD has already formed a four-member election coordination team and according to sources soon several ministers and senior leaders of the party are going to camp in different locations within the constituency and oversee the party's strategy. "We will win the seat hands down. There is no doubt about that," said senior BJD leader Amar Prasad Satpathy.
However, the saffron party is equally confident of its success in Bijepur, as well. According to BJP national secretary and Bargarh MP Suresh Pujari, taking advantage of being in power and by giving a rosy picture to the people of Bijepur, Naveen had won the seat.
"He had announced a slew of projects including the Gangadhar Meher Lift Canal System, bonus of Rs 100 per quintal of paddy to farmers etc. The chief minister had also promised Bijepur's development was his responsibility. All this raised the expectations of the innocent people. Just before the election, vacancies of doctors and teachers were swiftly filled up, however, they were taken back soon after the polls," said Pujari.
"Why the promises haven't been kept is agitating the minds of the people. They will give a fitting reply to the BJD for its act of betrayal and vote for the BJP. Let me tell you, this time BJP is going to win convincingly here," he said.
On the other hand, the Congress too fancies its chances. "Definitely the party's position has improved in Bijepur. A large section of Congress workers who left the party along with Rita Sahu for BJD is coming back. Also, the sympathy of the voters that the BJD candidate (Rita Sahu) drew in 2018, is not there this time," said Congress leader Panchanan Kanungo.
According to Kanungo, in 2018 and 2019, Naveen created a false impression among the people by making tall promises for the development of Bijepur. Though Naveen and his party reaped electoral dividends, he forgot to keep his words. "The voters are aware of Naveen's game that he played with them. They will assess BJD's report card," Kanungo said, adding, "The BJD is in power in the state and it will spend a huge amount of money like the BJP. But, both will be rejected by Bijepur voters."
Once considered a Congress bastion -- its candidate, Subal Sahu had successfully represented the seat from 2004 till his death in 2017. Bijepur is now a prestige issue for the BJD. Bijepur was in focus in the Assembly polls held in April-May, this year as Naveen contested for the seat. It's the first time, the BJD supremo was seeking votes from two seats-the other being Hinjili. As predicted, Naveen won both the seats by a sound margin.
Bijepur is in Bargarh district of western Odisha, which has traditionally been a BJP stronghold. In the 2017 Panchayat elections, the Hindutva party had done phenomenally in this western belt. In Bargarh, it had swept the Zilla Parishad seats. In the 2019 General Elections, BJP also won handsomely in all the five Lok Sabha seats in the region -- Sambalpur, Bargarh, Bolangir, Kalahandi and Sundargarh.
However, it failed to translate the same success in the Assembly segments. Political observers believe that Naveen's decision to contest from Bijepur was to strengthen his party's presence and checkmate the BJP's popularity in the western region. Both, his supporters and critics had attributed the BJD's success (in the Assembly segments) to the Naveen effect.
"Naveen Babu must tell the people of western Odisha why he contested from Bijepur. And, when the people elected him, why he vacated the seat?" asked Pujari. Earlier, Congress too had criticised Naveen for vacating Bijepur.
However, dismissing the Opposition charges, a BJD spokesperson said, a number of projects have brought about a perceptible change in Bijepur while many others are in various stages of implementation. "Our chief minister is a committed person, he believes in delivery. Don't forget his popularity among the people. The opposition parties know the reality, understand the grassroots level situation and are aware that the people of Bijepur are with Naveen Patnaik and his development work," said the BJD leader.
"It's going to be a fascinating contest in Bijepur. Naveen is immensely popular here, however, his giving up the Bijepur seat has not gone down well with many. BJP's Gartia has a good support base in Bijepur. It will be interesting to see whether Congress will be able to pull its old support base back. That's extremely difficult, not impossible, though," said a senior journalist from western Odisha.
The counting of votes will be held on 24 October. There are 2,32,005 eligible voters in 285 polling booths in the Assembly constituency. The BJD enjoys a massive majority of 113 out of 146 seats in the 147-member Odisha Assembly.