How is 2019 going to play out for Odisha? That is a million dollar question.
Odisha is now consuming a meme a day. Ever since ‘Naveen — The Jet Engine’ (yes, that is the name given to him by his social media team) has landed on our social media with his well choreographed exercise routine, the meme game has been upped a notch. But the meme game for the election season started in earnest after the Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneshwar, where the Chief Minister in his broken and often hilarious Odia, reached out to the Odia viewers watching the opening ceremony.
‘Apana Mane Khusi Ta? Mu bhi bahut khusi’ (Are you people happy? Even I am very happy), said the Chief Minister and his fan base erupted in cheers. Through the next few weeks, he repeated this dialogue in multiple public meetings that he attended. The dialogue got a life of its own and through caricature and celebration in equal amounts, became symbolic of what the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the Chief Minister want Odisha to seem like. A state where everyone is happy like him and with him and where there is no space or need of any political alternative because everyone is just so happy.
The khusi (happiness) of the BJD template is deeply contested and on many occasions even ubiquitously absent. But as in life and so in politics, when there is no one to really peel the layers of years of silence, the surface seems to bubble with happiness. Resignation is not seen as an outcome of anger or frustration but a dormant state of happiness.
Perhaps, that is where Odisha sits now for many people. Odisha still lags behind other states in many critical development indicators. It is seeing a debilitating erosion of law and order with girl child rape incidents coming forth in alarming regularity. Thousands of people have lost their money in chit fund scams and the political leaders in the spotlight continue to enjoy the endorsement of the supreme leader of the party.
One of the very catchy songs playing on loop at the release of the BJP manifesto caught my attention. It was a well choreographed, Odia rap song featuring young boys and girls, who were dancing their hearts out and the chorus went, ‘Kaha Odisha tu kete khusi?’ (Tell me Odisha, how happy are you?). The BJP’s campaign in Odisha is focused on this theme, of unravelling the resignation of people and making them vocalise their concerns with status quo. Through the ballot. And this requires disrupting the surface level happiness because of which anti-incumbency never seems to set in, in the state.
But how far has the BJP been successful in doing that or is it that people in Odisha are actually content with the governance being provided through the course of two decades? How is 2019 going to play out?
Talking to people across towns and villages, you are not going to emerge any wiser. No one really knows what is going on and no one has a prediction. But there are four aspects which dominate the discussion irrespective of whether you talk to political workers or regular voters.
The first is that the halo around Naveen Patnaik has dented. And that is less to do with his personality and more to do with the local leaders that voters see (and in many cases never see) in their locality. This has always been the case in Odisha, where the Naveen Patnaik emerges unscathed after issues of corruption or any other unfavourable incident against his party men and women.
The accused or the guilty used to be immediately disassociated from the party and the public used to be assured that the leader is a man of integrity but surrounded by some bad elements. But post 2014, the situation has drastically changed. Rape accused leaders have continued getting the party ticket in key seats. Chit fund scam accused leaders have not been replaced, forget being reprimanded. Goons and anti-social elements are having a free run. And surprisingly, unlike yesteryears the CM has little to say. The distance between him and the worst elements of his party has reduced and he seems closer to the muck than ever. He is still above other leaders of the state but the pedestal is lower.
The second fact that emerges clearly is that the Congress is imploding like never before. There is still a possibility that the Congress will manage to pull through in two tribal dominated Lok Sabha seats but that is on the basis of individual candidates rather than any party affiliation. The hugely popular tribal leader from Sundergarh district, George Tirkey, is now contesting on a Congress ticket against Union minister Jual Oram and stands to gain.
Another such district is Nabarangpur, where the Congress candidate Pradeep Majhi had lost with a narrow margin last time. But beyond these two districts, the Congress seems to have no place in the popular imagination. Although a lot of money is being spent by the newly-elected state president of the party, they are struggling to find good candidates. Congress is not in a position to cut any votes of either the BJD or the BJP. But, in a completely different way, the Congress will determine the results of these elections. And that is through the direction in which the Congress votes shift in a couple of weeks.
The third discussion is that the BJP is steadily gaining. Across regions, across districts, across communities, there is an unmissable consolidation of votes. The strengthening of the organisation is a work in progress and years of neglect and even decay cannot be undone in four years.
But, the party organisation is in a much better shape compared to 2014, and that was proven by the zila parishad elections and results. Unlike 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also not a relatively unknown figure in Odisha today. There is an instant recall of his personality, and the branding of BJP around him is working. The clarion call by the state BJP is to aim for ‘double engine’ growth. This means ‘Modi at the Centre and BJP at the state’ as party president Amit Shah recently said during the release of the manifesto. But, herein lies the problem.
At the level of the Lok Sabha, the BJP is trying to channelise ‘Modi versus No One’ by saying that there is no alternative. But, at the level of the state, it is encountering ‘Naveen versus No One’. While Union Minister, Dharmendra Pradhan, was clearly projected as the face of the party in Odisha, as the election inched closer, his resolve started weakening, in what can be called terrible optics and an extremely demotivating situation for the party cadre.
This is accentuated by less than desirable candidate choices in many constituencies. In such a situation, winning the assembly elections seems like a distant possibility. Odisha traditionally does not cross vote for state and Centre and did not do so even at the peak of the Modi wave in 2014. So, is it really possible that the gains for Lok Sabha are more than the gains for state assembly?
The fourth sentiment expressed in almost every quarter is the inability to write off the BJD. The BJD is an election winning machine in the state and through the past two decades has permeated almost every aspect of the functioning of the state. Their grassroots organisational base is like no other. They have co-opted almost every major media house of Odisha.
Three sitting MPs of the BJD (from both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha) own media houses. Bhatruhari Mahtab, the Cuttack MP candidate, edits the Prajatantra. Soumya Ranjan Patnaik, who is also an MLA candidate, owns the company Eastern media limited, which runs a popular newspaper, Sambad, a news channel, Kanak TV and a radio channel. Achyuta Samanta, who is the MP candidate from Kandhamal, owns the Kalinga TV news channel. In contrast, Baijayant Panda’s family owns the most popular news channel in the state OTV. It is clear that in the media game, BJD has an obvious edge.
But more than the media, it is the extent of control that the BJD has over the local bureaucracy that makes it a formidable rival to beat. From some sections of the police, to the lower level bureaucracy, to the self help groups (SHGs) scattered across villages to a bureaucrat being the right hand man of the CM in all electoral activities, the BJD has something which no other party in the state has — a pliant bureaucracy.
The reach of such a political system is phenomenal. This combined with loyal party cadre, still make it difficult to take the BJD lightly. While everyone can see some change happening, no one has any deep insight on how the BJD election machinery works which perhaps remains as secretive as its supreme leader and his favoured bureaucrat. The element of intrigue along with years of evidence remains, which makes people add question marks at the end of every assertion.
Every opinion poll suggests a massive surge in seats for the BJP in Odisha. Pollsters are predicting wins in districts, where the BJP came third in the past election, and perhaps has had no base since the late 1990s. A discussion with some people working for the BJP, and in know of the numbers inside out, brings in some interesting perspectives.
There are many in the team who themselves cannot believe the numbers coming up and are seeing it as an aberration of the way things have worked in Odisha. But, the snap polls run multiple times and tested thoroughly continue throwing up the same numbers indicating a massive surge. Tribal consolidation for the BJP, coastal districts flipping are some of the things that seem unbelievable even in the face of data.
One explanation for the inflated figures for BJP comes from the expectation of differential voting for the state assembly and the Lok Sabha. Pradhan has refused to contest the assembly elections after years of projecting himself as the direct contender of Naveen Patnaik. This is as much a sign of the confidence of Pradhan as Patnaik’s staged exercise video is a sign of his panic.
Odisha last cross voted in the year 1995 and much water has flown through the Mahanadi since then. If the predictions of 10-15 Lok Sabha seats for Odisha stands true, then with similar trends holding for assembly elections, the BJP should also be poised to form the government in the state. But at this stage that seems unlikely. So the truth lies somewhere in between.
But even in the face of such contradictions, these steep gains in numbers for the BJP is what the polls continue throwing up, making this election in Odisha almost unpredictable. There is a possibility that the data sets are skewed or not representative enough. But how many agencies, channels and sources (both internal and external) could continue getting it wrong week after week?
Under reporting or the ‘silent voter’ is still an easily understandable situation where opinion polls are unable to capture change, but how would you understand ‘the enthused and vocal voter’? Are the voters trying to mislead pollsters and parties by over-reporting the sentiment for change? That seems unlikely but there is no clear answer to that.
The one answer which resonated came from a BJP political worker crunching the numbers. “The only explanation to such numbers is that the Modi wave which hit the rest of the country in 2014, has hit Odisha in 2019. Nothing else explains this but a wave scenario”. Wave elections have been underestimated in the past, sometimes even dismissed. Could Odisha be one such scenario. For a few more days, I will continue asking myself ‘What am I missing?”