The moment you land in Odisha’s Biju Patnaik International Airport, it is evident that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is brewing something big in the state. Right in the terminal, each visitor is welcomed by hoardings full of smiling party members.
Political leaders arriving in Bhubaneswar are greeted with garlands. The air rings with the sloganeering of party workers who wield massive flags bearing the BJP lotus: “BJP zindabad, BJP zindabad.” The presence of so many VIPs has necessitated a prominent police presence.
All of this is in preparation for the BJP national executive meeting on 15-16 April.
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Chandnath Rana, the priest who presides over Khurda’s Dhavaleshwar temple situated at a distance of 25 kilometres from the capital, is present at the airport with his entire mandli.
Garlanded with the BJP’s symbolic flower, Rana welcomed BJP president Amit Shah.
“This will soon be presented as an offering to God. His blessing is with the BJP. Modi is our guru. The next election is ours,” he told me.
Preparations on in Full-Force for Modi's Arrival
Narendra Modi, who is expected to reach Bhubaneswar around 3:30 pm on Friday, will be met with much fanfare.
Although the party is hesitant to term it a road show, the vibe in the state capital is reminiscent of Varanasi pre-election.
A BJP leader told us that a sea of supporters is expected to stretch from the airport to the Janata Maidan where the conclave is scheduled to take place. The Prime Minister’s convoy will move through the centre of this crowd, with him waving to his followers as he makes his way to the venue. All the major routes in the city are already lined with party billboards and life-size cut-outs of Shah and Modi.
The Agenda of the Executive Meet
The national conclave in Bhubaneswar is the first big political gathering of the party following their grand victory in Uttarakhand and UP.
Apart from Modi and Shah, LK Advani, Murali Manohar Joshi, several top dignitaries, cabinet ministers, state leaders, and chief ministers of 13 BJP-ruled states will be in attendance. The motto of the meet outlines areas of focus for the BJP: aximising efforts on the path to fulfilment of its goals, economic and otherwise.
Odisha’s Dharmendra Pradhan, who heads the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, said:
“Odisha is now a laboratory for Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana. The Prime Minister is coming to thank the people of the state for their support in the local panchayat elections.”
According to Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011, Odisha tops the lips of poverty-stricken states. The purpose of the meet is to officially place the upliftment of Odisha on the BJP’s political agenda. A BJP leader has said that schemes for the welfare of the poor will be front and centre in the PM’s address at the executive meet.
PM Modi is also expected to honour the 16 descendants of the freedom fighters who led the Paika rebellion of 1817, considered by many to be the first bid for Indian independence.
The choice of Bhubaneswar as the venue for the BJP national conclave is part of the BJP’s new political strategy. The motive is to improve the BJP’s performance along the eastern coast of India that has traditionally been the stronghold of regional outfits. Though the BJP had an alliance with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) from 2000 to 2009, it could never garner grassroots support for itself in the state.
In the 2009 Assembly elections, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD claimed 103 seats of the total 147 while the BJP won a mere six. Similarly, in the 2014 elections, the BJD won 117 seats while the BJP gathered only 10.
The Modi wave that hit election-bound India in 2014 left Odisha entirely untouched.
Of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha, BJD won 20 in the elections while the BJP claimed merely one. The BJP, however, has stunned everyone with its performance in Odisha’s Zila Parishad elections this year. It has toppled Congress from its number 2 position by winning 294 of the 851 seats. The BJD claimed 467 seats while the Congress won only 60.
Operation Odisha 2019
The national conclave in Bhubaneswar is clearly a part of the BJP’s Look East policy. Encouraged by its performance in the panchayat elections, the BJP is now laying the groundwork for victory in the state in the 2019 general elections. To this end, it hopes to capitalise on the BJD’s internal feuding and an anti-incumbent wave.
Additionally, the BJP has identified 120 Lok Sabha seats it lost in 2014 but hopes to win in 2019. Most of these belong to states on the eastern coast of India, including Odisha. This means that all schemes announced at the executive meet will form part of the BJP’s platform for the 2019 elections.
Interestingly, the BJP held a similar national conclave in Bhubaneswar in 1997, exactly 20 years ago. Three years later, it formed the government in Odisha in alliance with the BJD and stayed in power till 2009. Eight years later, its ambitions are clearly bigger as it sets out to dislodge the BJD altogether and win majority in Odisha in 2019.
(This article has been translated from Quint Hindi by Neha Yadav.)