In Odisha, It’s Unstoppable BJP Versus No-Longer-Immovable Naveen Patnaik

The ministers were told to submit their report cards with the Chief Minister's Office (CMO) by the seventh of every month.

Bhubaneswar: Ever since the four-phase polls for Odisha’s 147-member Assembly and 21 Lok Sabha seats came to a nail-biting end on April 29, the question being asked the most is whether the outcome of these elections would make Odisha’s longest-serving CM, Naveen Patnaik, happy.

For 72-year-old Naveen Patnaik, who has served as CM for four successive terms, these polls have been the toughest.

With a resurgent and irrepressibly ambitious Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) having used in the campaigns its organisational might and the popular rhetoric of its five years in power at the Centre, the regional party’s much-vaunted invincibility under Patnaik has certainly appeared shaken.

But whether the saffron party would manage to cut short Patnaik’s march towards a fifth straight term in power is anybody’s guess.

Even though it was a fierce triangular contest in Odisha with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), BJP and Congress in the race, for the most part, the main fight was between candidates of the ruling BJD and the BJP.

Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah campaigned extensively across Odisha along with several top leaders from the party and targeted BJD and Patnaik directly.

The BJP’s elaborate campaign structure and idiom indicated that the national party was too keen to wrest the state from BJD’s grip.

The Congress, on the other hand, ran a comparatively toned down campaign despite being the main Opposition party in Odisha. Leaders of the grand old party were disappointed that their chief Rahul Gandhi did not “give enough attention” to Odisha during these polls.

While a wide array of issues related to the state jostled for voters’ attention during the campaign, the polls were fought mainly on the Naveen Patnaik versus Narendra Modi axis.

Patnaik, despite not being in the best of health, addressed close to 100 rallies, the highest in any election season.

He also contested from two Odisha Assembly constituencies for the first time in the 19 years he has been the chief minister.

Modi addressed 10 campaign rallies in the state and Amit Shah took part in six, while several Union ministers from the BJP campaigned extensively. Rahul Gandhi addressed only five rallies in the state.

The BJP, which ruled Odisha as a BJD ally with Patnaik at the helm between 2000 and 2008, has been steadily gaining strength in the state in the past decade.

The saffron party had won only one of the 21 Lok Sabha seats (Union minister Jual Oram from Sundargarh) and just 10 of the 147 Assembly seats in the 2014 polls, while the BJD won 117 Assembly seats and 20 parliamentary constituencies.

The Congress had won only 16 Assembly seats in its kitty. In the 2009 elections, which the BJD and BJP fought separately for the first time after their alliance fell apart, the saffron party had won just six Assembly seats and no Lok Sabha seat.

The BJD had won 14 Lok Sabha seats and 103 Assembly constituencies, while the grand old party was victorious in 27 Assembly seats and six parliamentary seats.

Since riding to power at the Centre in 2014, the BJP has focused sharply on Odisha and reaped rich dividends in the local body polls in the state in 2017, winning 306 of the 853 Zilla Parishad seats and reducing the ruling BJD from 651 in 2012 to 460.

A resurgent BJP pushed Congress to a distant third, cutting its strength from 126 to 66 in Zilla Parishads.

Significantly, while a triangular contest this time would have meant that anti-BJD votes get divided between the BJP and Congress, thus, giving BJD a clear advantage, a considerably weak campaign by the Congress ensured a direct fight between the BJD and BJP almost across the state.

A robust campaign by BJP, led from the front by the Modi-Shah duo, appeared to be eroding the Odisha people’s penchant to unquestioningly accept Patnaik as their leader despite his clean image.

But Patnaik, son of legendary Odia leader and ex-CM Biju Patnaik, hopes to win a fifth term due to the massive popularity he has in the state.

He came into politics as a reluctant leader after his father’s death in 1997 and remained a recluse all along, but he mastered the art of quietly pulling the strings within the party and government and emerged as an astute player in the state politics.

BJD leaders take pride in the fact that theirs is perhaps the only party in the country whose tally has been increasing in every successive election both in terms of seats and vote share.

They shrug off any suggestion of an anti-incumbency factor, claiming that Odisha would have none of it till the time Patnaik is at the helm.

But with the high-profile defections that the BJD has witnessed in the run-up to the polls and the nationalist spirit reawakened among voters, BJP leaders see a silver line that is larger than the cloud.

It was in May 2000 that Naveen Patnaik first became the state’s CM and began a whole new chapter in Odisha’s politics, surprising political pundits and shocking his detractors. The May of 2019 is poised to be a turning point for him, the party he founded and the eastern state.