It’s going to be an exciting contest in Odisha between Narendra Modi and Naveen Patnaik in 2019, with Congress nowhere in the picture.
While the clean image of Patnaik would help BJD, BJP’s increasing clout in the state and well-oiled election machinery pose a serious threat.
The results of the Bijepur by-polls in Odisha clearly suggest that the contest in 2019 in the state will be between Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the by-polls, BJD candidate won handsomely, partly thanks to the sympathy factor. BJP finished runner up while Congress received a paltry 5 per cent vote share. BJP is now the main opposition to BJD in Odisha. The party has a set an ambitious target to win 120+ seats in the state and wrest power from Naveen Patnaik in 2019. The North East win has given the momentum to BJP’s mission. The party is confident that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity coupled with anti-incumbency against BJD rule will help it pull off a win in the state.
BJP’s Improving Performance In By-polls And Municipal Polls
BJP bagged one Lok Sabha seat in 2014 while Congress drew a blank. In by-poll for Kandhamal Lok Sabha seat, BJP emerged as the runner up overtaking the Congress candidate. In the municipal elections in 2017, BJP received almost twice the vote share of Congress. While its tally jumped eight times from 36 to 306 seats, its vote share nearly doubled from 18 per cent to 33 per cent. And recently, in Bijepur by-poll in 2018, Congress was pushed to third spot. Extrapolating the municipal results to assembly constituencies, BJP is currently leading in 53, BJD in 80 and Congress in 11 seats as per my calculations. Still one year left for BJP to add another 20 odd seats in its kitty and gain majority.
BJP’s Track Record Against Long Tenure Governments
Skeptics would laugh at BJP’s bold claim of bagging 120+ seats. How can a party with just 10 MLAs get majority in a house strength of 147? BJP’s election machinery has carried out such impossible missions in many states in last four years, like in Assam, Haryana, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh UP(), Tripura and Nagaland. Its current tally in these states is between eight and 12 times its previous strength. The commonality with Odisha is that all these performances of BJP were pitted against long lasting 10- to 20-year incumbent governments.
(Note: In all states except UP, a single party governed for the years mentioned in the graph In UP, BJP was out of power since 2002 and the state witnessed one BSP and two SP chief ministerial terms.)
Parallels With The Tripura Victory
Odisha shares a few similarities with Tripura - long tenure of incumbent, poor economic track record, clean image of Naveen Patnaik (like Manik Sarkar) but corrupt bureaucracy and party leadership. By the time polls take place Naveen Patnaik would have been ruling the state for almost 20 years. It is natural to develop strong anti-incumbency against long serving chief ministers. Till now the TINA (there is no alternative) factor helped BJD. BJP was part of its coalition government till 2009, preventing the party from forming its own base in the state. The state is economically backward despite being rich in mineral resources. Per capita income of Odisha is 29 per cent below national average. 33 per cent of people of the state are below poverty line versus national average of 22 per cent.
While Naveen Patnaik has a non-corruptible image, it can’t be said about his party ministers. The Rs 60,000 crore mining scam is one of the biggest allegations against his government. He has replaced as many as 26 ministers during his entire tenure, acknowledging some sort of wrong doing. He in many ways is similar to Modi. He is single and people feel that he has no incentive for indulging in corruption. This pits Patnaik against Modi in a presidential style elections and this is where BJP gets an upper hand.
The Move To Schedule State Elections With Lok Sabha Gives BJP An Edge
The state elections are likely to be held together with Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Patnaik has supported One Nation One Poll concept and even if Lok Sabha elections are pushed ahead and held together with Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Odisha could agree to advancing. The Modi factor, which is still strong and received a big boost after North East victory, may just tilt the scale in favour of the BJP. The slogan ‘same government in the Centre and in the state will lead to better development’, may work for BJP. Simultaneous Central and state elections also compensate for BJP’s weakness of not having a tall local leader of Naveen Patnaik’s stature.
Decline of Congress And Frequent Changes In State Leadership
Congress party’s graph has been steadily declining in the state since J B Patnaik left the party in 1999. From 39 per cent vote share in 1995 to 26 per cent in 2014 state elections to record low of 18 per cent in panchayat polls in 2017 and now 5.6 per cent in Bijepur by-polls. It has changed its state leadership seven times during 2000-2014. As India steadily becomes Congress-mukt, it is highly likely that there will be an exodus of state leaders towards BJD and BJP, as people would jump off a sinking ship. The BJP has captured most of this decline in vote share as detailed below in the graph.
Lack Of Second Rung Leadership In BJD And Infighting Within Party
Naveen Patnaik is still considered as an outsider in the state, his ‘Odia’ is not so great, he doesn’t mingle with people and party workers, and he doesn’t have an approachable image. There is no deputy commander of Naveen Patnaik in the party. None of his family members are interested in politics. This is not good for a dynasty based party and could lead to splits after Patnaik retires like what happened with Telugu Desam Party and Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). He is believed to rely more on bureaucracy which has irked party leaders in the past. Recently, Jay Panda was suspended from the party for his alleged anti-party activities after an internal tussle. Many disgruntled BJD leaders have joined BJP, more expected to follow as polls approach.
Significant Scope For Making A Dent In BJD’s Anchor Voting Segments
BJP and BJD share the same voting blocks of upper caste and Other Backward Class (OBC). While BJP got majority of these votes in other states in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, these stuck with BJD in Odisha (49 per cent and 45 per cent respectively). OBCs nationally have been flocking to Modi’s BJP (34 per cent) while upper caste (56 per cent) have moved en-masse from Congress to the party. BJP also received good tribal support nationally (38 per cent), however couldn’t repeat same performance in Odisha (18 per cent). BJP will push for expanding the base of its national anchor voting segments in the state and damage BJD’s prospects.
To conclude, it’s going to be an exciting contest in Odisha between Modi and Patnaik in 2019, with Congress nowhere in the picture. While the clean image of Patnaik would help BJD, BJP’s increasing clout in the state and well-oiled election machinery pose a serious threat.
(Amitabh Tiwari is a former corporate and investment banker turned political commentator, strategist and consultant. He is co-founder of LoudST, co-author of e-book ‘Battle of Karnataka’ and can be reached at @politicalbaaba.)