Green flags with the conch sign were visible all around as I crossed Binjharpur to enter Aul in Kendrapara. Bikes, cars, houses, festoons, flags, it was green wherever you turned your eye. A group of high school children who definitely could not vote told me that the Ollywood super star and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate from Kendrapara, Anubhav Mohanty, was not far away. There were men in green scarves all around and the smell of alcohol could not be missed.
A group of extremely polite BJD workers told me to stand a little away because there was a country liquor bar nearby and the men there were screaming expletives. One of them told me that the crowds that Anubhav was drawing was unimaginable and if his wife Barsha (also a leading actor) had joined him, the crowd would double. By then, around 10 more party workers had joined the group and some of them got into a discussion on how she could not be expected to bear this heat with her small infant.
An hour or so later, as I started to leave the area after a little bit of tension with a few of the party workers, a few BJD workers walked behind me and asked me to meet them at the nearby market, away from the rally site. And as we walked towards the spot, one of them whispered that his fellow workers were not being honest and that Baijayant Panda was guaranteed to win the MP seat. I asked him why he could not say it in front of them and he just laughed. He said many among them might even vote for Panda but will not openly say it. “It is not that simple in Kendrapara, this time”, he said.
He had summed it up. Nothing about the Kendrapara election seems simple this time. There is no wave. There are no voter blocks. There is personal animosity. There is honour at stake. There is a fight between a much loved neta and a much loved Abhineta, and everyone seems to be walking the tightrope.
The Kendrapara election is a battle and there is no other way to put it. The enviable grassroots machinery of the BJD is out in full force, aided by the personal stake of the CM Naveen Patnaik. And on the other side is the popular ex-MP Baijayant Panda who is battling the right-man, wrong-party sentiment.
Here are some of the factors which stand out in Kendrapara.
Brand Baijayant Panda
Travelling through Kendrapara, there is no doubt about who has captured the imagination of the people and dominated the conversation. Even in the presence of the hugely popular cine-star Anubhav Mohanty as the BJD candidate, Baijayant Panda is the Numero Uno leader here. From teenagers to farmers to women from SHG groups to office goers, everyone knows him, his work and whether they intend to vote for him or not, there is a certain respect with which they talk of him.
What is the instant recall when it comes to him? His accessibility and humility, undoubtedly. People recall how he was always around in his constituency. He was there when houses were burnt down, he was sitting with the people and eating when a temple got inaugurated, he was there to build water tanks and mini stadia.
A huge factor which seems to be working for Panda is the fact that he is a national icon. A first-time voter in Aul says, “Anubhav Mohanty is only known in Odisha. Who knows him outside? But everyone knows Panda. He brings honour to Odisha outside the state”. The erudition of Panda, his stature outside the state and his ability to be grounded seems to be valued the most.
An old farmer in Mahanga takes the example of Pramila Bisoi, the BJD MP candidate from Aska, to make his point. “Look at Bisoi. She has herself admitted that she has studied till Grade 3. She will win and sit in the back benches and not be able to speak a word in Parliament. What is the use of that? If Panda wins, he will at least speak properly for Kendrapara. We need such educated people to win,” he says.
But while he is respected, Panda is also an extremely polarising figure. Talk to BJD supporters and they will tell you a different story. His work for the constituency is grudgingly acknowledged, but it is made clear that none of that money came from his own pocket.
He could work because Naveen Patnaik and BJD gave him the space and opportunity to work and hence his personal claims do not stand. The biggest grouse against him is of ‘betraying’ the party leader for his ambition and sullying Patnaik’s image on a national platform. He did ‘Beimaani’, said a BJD supporter, before narrating how Panda is unable to draw crowds for his rallies.
There is no person bigger than Naveen Patnaik for a large section of Kendrapara voters, and for them, Panda remains the villain who chose ambition over loyalty.
Biju Babu’s Kendrapara
Kendrapara is a constituency with a distinct history of being a non-Congress bastion. Or better to read it as a Biju Patnaik bastion. The last time the Congress party won in the area was in the 1950s. Biju Babu represented the constituency thrice and since 1998, only BJD has had control over the seat.
In the words of the locals and most of Odisha, Kendrapara is a ‘record’. The record is treasured, valued and celebrated. And suddenly, Jay Panda is seen as the person who is out there with all his resources to break that record. The response to that is complicated.
Kendrapara belongs to ‘Biju Babu’ in popular perception and that is an uncontested fact till now. So, the question remains, which entity has the legitimacy to claim to be his rightful successor. And there is no doubt that it is his son and the party named after him, that can take forward Biju Babu’s dream.
Blood is thicker than water. People supporting the BJD take this election as a challenge to ensure that Biju Babu is somehow not unseated from his position and the record continues. It is emotional for many, particularly to the ones who are out to campaign for the party.
But on the other hand, there is a recognition that Panda is also a product of Biju Babu’s camp. He has never been with the Congress and his image is not sullied with that association. People still remember him as a loyalist of Biju Patnaik as a young man, his close familial ties with the Patnaik family and also as someone who dedicated a good part of his life to the BJD. “He has a problem with Biju Babu’s son and not with Biju Babu. If he wins, even then Biju Babu will win”, says a constituent in Salepur.
While this may seem like a minor factor, it arouses emotion. And in campaigns, emotions matter. This election will seal who Kendrapara believes is the real custodian of the Biju Babu legacy. And, perhaps, that is one of the reasons why Naveen Patnaik is so invested in this election.
Naveen Patnaik’s Vengeance
There is no politician in Odisha and maybe across the country, who comes close to Naveen Patnaik when it comes to being ruthless. He does not just eliminate his adversaries, his obliviates their memory from public discourse. He burns all bridges and ensures that there is no point of return.
Take for example the case of the death of Patkura BJD MLA Bed Prakash Agrawala, last week. 82-year-old Agrawala was bedridden in an ICU, when he was given the ticket for Patkura, in the Kendrapara constituency. He could not even collect his papers immediately and could barely speak.
It was evident that he is on borrowed time. But Naveen Patnaik ensured that he got a ticket and the reason for that in a very twisted manner was personal. Competing against Agrawala was his earlier bete noire no. 1, Bijoy Mohapatra. Mohapatra was Patnaik’s first political casualty and through the years, he had ensured that his political prospects remain bleak.
Once a political heavyweight from Kendrapara and a personal loyalist of Biju Babu, Mohapatra had unsuccessfully tried staging a comeback till he joined the BJP earlier this year, and got the MLA ticket from Patkura. But not one to forget or let go, Naveen Patnaik ensured that he would give the BJD ticket to a man on his death bed and not even to a member of his family.
And this strategy has worked. Agrawala’s death has now pushed the MLA elections in the constituency further and gives him more time to focus on Patkura and ensure Mohapatra’s defeat. This is a different level of political gameplay.
Mohapatra was his old enemy and without any Delhi influence. Panda is his current enemy number one and has enormous clout as well as goodwill. So, all stops are being pulled to ensure his defeat.
This has become personal for Naveen Patnaik and everyone, from the CM himself to lower level leaders are camping at Kendrapara, to reach down to the last voter. The desperation shows in the BJD party cadre also. There were attacks on Panda’s roadshow last week and sporadic incidents of violence on BJP workers across the constituency. In Aul, some voters termed it as ’BJD Upadraba’.
The personal nature of the battle means nothing is off the board. While the BJD candidate Anubhav Mohanty has not gone on an overdrive in accusing Panda, the firing comes from the party supremo himself. Mohanty speaking against Panda might backfire because of the goodwill of the latter, but Patnaik can do it. And he has made frontal attacks on Panda without mincing words.
The heaviest accusation being about Panda spreading rumours around his ill-health. There is too much honour at stake here for Patnaik and no ex-BJD person in his bad books has managed to win an election after leaving the party. He would not want Panda to break that record.
The Hope On Cross-Voting
One of the big political masterstrokes from the master of the game, Naveen Patnaik was in the year 2009, when he decided to conduct the state and the central elections simultaneously. It is perhaps difficult to fathom, but assessing the electoral scene in Odisha is unlike any other state.
Each and every Assembly segment has a different dynamic and the MP election is not immune to any of that. Cross-voting remains a hope, but just as a behavioural anchor, it is difficult. In district after district in Odisha, the hope for the BJP seems to come from cross-voting and in Kendrapara it is exceedingly so. But is it that simple?
Even hardcore BJP supporters in the constituency do not seem to be confident about the results for the state Assembly. The lack of confidence cannot be missed. In Mahanga, the BJP MLA candidate, Sarada Pradhan, does not enjoy a great reputation but is expected to pull through.
In Salepur, the ex-Congress MLA, Prakash Behera, is the BJP’s candidate this time and enjoys immense goodwill. In Patkura, the death of Agrawala might give an edge to Panda as the MLA election has been deferred. But apart from these three segments, no other BJP MLA candidate seems to have an edge.
The Big Congress Variable
On the face of it, the role of the Congress in the Kendrapara election seems non-existent. But that is pretty much the one thing that is going to decide the arithmetic in favour of Panda. Travelling around Kendrapara, particularly in the Assembly segments of Aul and Kendrapara, it becomes adequately clear that in a weird twist of political gameplay, the Congress has backed Panda’s candidature as MP.
It is difficult to make sense of, but people across the political spectrum with the sole exception of Congress grassroot leaders, pointed out to this fact. A big variable in this election is the dependence on Jay Panda on a mass transfer of votes from the Congress in at least three key Assembly segments.
In Kendrapara, much-loved Congress MLA Prakash Behera is now the BJP candidate and will bring in a sufficient shift in INC votes. When common voters also indicate that the Congress wants them to vote for Jay Panda as MP, it is clear that the grassroots leaders of the party have been taking this message to homes.
But a mass transfer of votes from Congress MLAs to a BJP MP is an unprecedented occurrence in state politics and entails massive risks. But Jay Panda remains crucially dependent on the vote shift from Congress to make it through and that dependence puts him in a very precarious position.
In some areas, the shift is visible. Devendra Sharma, who is the sitting MLA from the area, has a good reputation among the people, including among those who identify themselves as BJP supporters. Some people I talked to in Aul called themselves BJP supporters and clearly stated that they would vote for Panda.
They remained unconvinced about the MLA seat and called Sharma a polite and accessible leader. Dig a little deeper and you could figure that these were people who had voted for Congress in the last election. They now support Panda and wear BJP scarves.
Near the Barua field where the PM addressed a rally, a group of young men from Rajnagar and Kendrapara had gathered to see the preparations. They were strong Panda voters, but at the Assembly segment level, wanted Anshuman Mohanty of the Congress to win, because he was “intelligent and dedicated”. In Kendrapara, Ganeshwar Behera of the INC seems to have a strong lead.
The hope on cross-voting and the dependence on Congress for vote transfer definitely gives an edge to the BJD. If a complete vote transfer does happen, it will be nothing short of a miracle.
“We Want Modi But Via Naveen”
One of the major things being spoken about in Odisha this season is the delayed onset of the BJP wave. For all means and purposes, it is the same as the Modi wave. In some districts like Puri, it is the one thing which seems to be working. But, in a strange way, the Modi factor seems to be missing in Kendrapara.
The contest here seems to be isolated and the battle is between Panda and Sankha (Conch, the symbol of the BJD). But it is not that Modi is missing from the conversation, it is just that he does not seem to matter much when it comes to Kendrapara.
A group of BJD workers participating in a rally of the Ollywood star told me that when it comes to the Prime Minister, there is no other option than Modi. The justifications seemed to be the same which BJP supporters provide. National security, dignity of the country, development - everything was mentioned.
They identified themselves as Modi supporters but would not vote for the BJP or Panda, come what may. Even in their support for Modi, their absolute and unflinching trust on Naveen Patnaik was the key factor. They believed that Patnaik would ensure that the BJP forms a government in the centre.
When asked about the possibility of BJD supporting a Congress-led Mahagathbandhan, there was stoic denial and a list of ‘friendly’ decisions by the party supremo were shared. It is very difficult to find a strong BJD supporter in the area who wants to see another PM at the centre. But they would rather let Naveen Patnaik ensure that, rather than voting for a BJP candidate themselves.
On the other hand, people who identified as BJP supporters or Panda supporters (more of them) felt that Modi was conspicuously absent from the campaign trail. Some people complained of fewer campaign vehicles, flexes, posters, messaging around him. The campaign seemed to be focused on Odisha politics and Panda’s role in his constituency.
It was the same in the constituency of Bhubaneshwar, where the MP candidate Aparajita Sarangi banked on her personal work in the area and her appeal to secure votes for the party. Perhaps, it is a strategy when the candidate has a brand value of her own or is a missed opportunity to add the most bankable aspect of the party to the campaign mix.
Kendrapara goes to vote tomorrow and there is a lot at stake. For Baijayant Panda, it is a validation of the work that he has put into the constituency along with the charting of his future political route. If he wins Kendrapara and the BJP manages a majority nationally, he is guaranteed a good position in Delhi. That would also seal his credentials as a mass leader and not just an erudite, TV room politician.
On the other hand, for Naveen Patnaik, it is a battle to save and preserve his credentials as the Numero Uno in Odisha politics who no one can take for granted. Patnaik takes Panda as a personal enemy and has not minced his words. A win would be a validation of his clout. Whatever the result, Kendrapara 2019 will present a political motif for Odisha which would determine many more decisions in the years to come.
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