In the only seat BJP won in Odisha in 2014, a rebel leader makes going tough

Sampad Patnaik
Union minister Jual Oram had won by just 18,000-odd votes last time. (Express)

Union Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram is locked in a tough contest with the Congress and BJD as he defends Sundargarh, the only seat the BJP won of the 21 in the last Lok Sabha elections in Odisha.

In 2014, Oram had defeated BJD candidate Dilip Tirkey by just 18,829 votes. His victory was partially attributed to the support of then Rourkela BJP MLA candidate Dilip Ray, who had earlier served as a Union Minister and is one of Odisha's wealthiest politicians.

Citing Odisha's Mahanadi water dispute with Chhattisgarh, the unfulfilled promises of a second bridge over Brahmani river and a super-speciality hospital at Rourkela among others, Ray, a former BJD leader, quit the BJP last year and also resigned as Rourkela MLA. His meeting in March with Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had prompted chatter of his return to the party. But earlier this month, Ray posted a tweet expressing gratitude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for releasing funds for projects in Rourkela. Oram had then publicly requested Ray to work for the BJP. The latter has, however, not officially rejoined the party.

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Oram's difficulty has been compounded by the Congress fielding four-time Biramitrapur MLA George Tirkey, a well-known labour leader and tribal activist. Congress president Rahul Gandhi's promise during a rally in Rourkela on February 5 to strengthen PESA (Panchayats Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act in Odisha is expected to further appeal to tribal voters, who had joined the Pathalgadi (tribal self-rule) movement in the area last year.

On the other hand, BJP leaders of the area say, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's speech in Sundargarh on April 15 "has not been helpful". At the rally, Adityanath had talked about "stopping the anti-national activities of religious conversion". Christians make up around 18 per cent of Sundargarh's population.

A senior Congress leader says while Tirkey is "formidable", they too anticipate one problem: "His weak point is that he has quit the JMM, which is influential in Sundargarh, and won Biramitrapur (Assembly seat) as an Independent since 2009."

The BJD has fielded Sunita Biswal, who recently joined the party. Biswal is the daughter of former Odisha CM and Congress leader Hemananda Biswal, who had previously won from Sundargarh.

"Biswal represents the highly influential Bhuiyan community in the area. Since she is the daughter of a former Congress CM, it is expected the Congress will not be very antagonistic towards her," says a BJD leader.