Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. (Mohd Zakir / Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • After decades, TINA has finally found its way out of Odisha. Now there is an alternative and it is glaringly visible.

You can also read this article in Hindi- ओडिशा में विकल्प का नहीं है अभाव- पढ़ें पूरे राज्य की चुनावी रिपोर्ट

2019 will be the most heated election seen in Odisha in decades. The build-up is huge, the national focus is higher than ever and in what was not seen in the past terms, there seems to be some pressure building on the ruling party.

Yesterday, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) released its second list of Lok Sabha candidates to be fielded from Odisha and with it the electoral battle in the state has become the fiercest in decades. Officers of the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service, legal hawks, actors, royal dynasties, newsroom warriors, self-help group members, the mix throws up more every passing day. The simultaneous state and parliamentary elections add to the uncertainty and keeps the situation as dynamic as possible.

The electoral cycle truly began with Baijayant Panda, the founder member of the BJD finally joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after a break of nearly nine months. Then there were a spate of MPs jumping ship from the BJD to the BJP, with ticket distribution being the major cause of discontent. This included Balabhadra Majhi, the ex-MP from Nabarangpur and Pratyusha Rajeshwari Singh, the MP from Kandhamal. Recently, ex-BJP member and three-time BJP MP from Balasore, Kharabela Swain rejoined the party. Majhi has since then become the BJP MP candidate from his old constituency and Swain has been given the BJP ticket from Kandhamal.

But, before we go further into understanding the ticket distribution, let us take a look at the results of 2014.

Odisha sends 21 MPs to Parliament and in the last parliamentary election, 20 out of the 21 elected MPs belonged to the ruling party BJD. The lone MP from BJP was Jual Oram who won the tribal dominant seat of Sundergarh with a margin of about 18,000 votes. The Congress came second in 11 seats and the BJP was the runner-up in nine seats.

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The electoral constituencies of Odisha can roughly be divided into coastal and the western-southern belt. Each belt has an equal number of districts but the western (and southern districts) have a significant tribal population. In many western districts, the dialects spoken are different from the Odia spoken in the coast. The western districts of Odisha are mineral rich and yet lag behind the coastal districts in terms of attention, visibility and development indices. These are some of the reasons why there is an ongoing demand for separate statehood for western Odisha.

It is this fault-line that is expected to define the 2019 elections in Odisha. It is certain that the BJP has made massive inroads in western Odisha. This was further validated by the fact that for the first time, Naveen Patnaik decided to contest from Bijepur in Bargarh district apart from his home constituency of Hinjili. With whispers about the high handedness of Dharmendra Pradhan in candidate selection, the palpable insecurity in the BJD leadership and the absolute chaos in the state Congress, the 2019 parliamentary elections are turning out to the riveting right from the stage of ticket distribution.

The Fight On The Coast

2014 made it clear that the BJP had massively lost out in almost all coastal districts with the exception of Balasore, Bhubaneshwar and Dhenkanal, where it had managed to come second. But, even in these districts the margin of loss was in the range of 1.3-1.9 lakh.

The coastal belt of Odisha has traditionally been a BJD stronghold. Constituencies like Puri, Cuttack, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur and Aska were won by the BJD in 2014 with a margin of 2-3 lakh votes. The BJP in all these constituencies, with the exception of Balasore, Dhenkanal and Bhubaneshwar was a distant third.

Let us take a look at the vote-share of the BJD in these coastal districts.

Each of the constituencies saw the BJD having a vote share of 40 per cent and above with six out of the 11 constituencies seeing a vote share of more than 50 per cent. BJP had performed abysmally in almost all these districts and in eight out of the 11 districts had a vote share of less than 25 per cent.

While the strengthening of the BJP, getting dissident leaders from the BJD and bringing in of new faces, has given BJP a better chance, but the sheer numbers in these districts, make it a very difficult battle. BJD had promised 33 per cent reservation of Lok Sabha seats for women. Naveen Patnaik has a massive following among women in Odisha and this move seems perfectly in sync with his image. The BJD has already declared six female candidates and it is not surprising that four among them are from the safe coastal seats of Aska, Jagatsinghpur, Bhadrak and Jajpur. It is a tough battle for any other party in these seats and hence, it makes sense that the BJP is yet to declare its candidates for three of these seats. To take on Pramila Bisoi, a SHG member handpicked by Naveen Patnaik in Aska, the BJP has fielded Anita Priyadarshini. Anita is the daughter of the veteran leader from Ganjam, Ramakrushna Patnaik.

One of the major battles playing out in this election will be in Kendrapara. BJP has fielded ex-BJD leader, Baijayant Panda from his home constituency. Kendrapara has been a BJD bastion since 1998 and Congress has not been able to win this seat since the 1950s. Standing against Panda, is Ollywood actor and Rajya Sabha MP, Anubhav Mohanty. Panda has faced resistance from the local BJD leaders in the past, which has included physical attacks on him. His personal integrity is vouched for and he has invested a lot of time and energy in his constituency. But owing to his acrimonious exit from the party, it looks like Kendrapara will become a personal cause for the Chief Minister and every step will be taken to help the BJD prevail. This will be one contest to look out for and a lot will depend on the direction in which the Congress vote is transferred.

Even in the Modi wave of 2014, the two major urban centres of Odisha, Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack remained steadfast with BJD. The BJP has decided to approach the situation by bringing in two exceptional professionals from the administrative and police service to contest from these two seats. Renowned bureaucrat Aparajita Sarangi, is the candidate of BJP from Bhubaneshwar and former Odisha DGP, Prakash Mishra is the candidate from Cuttack. Both these individuals have tremendous public recall and their integrity is mostly unquestioned.

But, Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar can also be considered as BJD bastions with nearly 50 per cent of the votes polled last time going to the ruling party. Bhartruhari Mahtab is the sitting BJD MP from Cuttack and has held the seat since 1998. Recognising the lack of appeal of the ex-MP from Bhubaneshwar, Prasanna Patasani (also known as Chicken Baba), the BJD has brought in a new candidate. Pitched against Sarangi, is the former Mumbai police commissioner Arup Patnaik.

In Puri, the seasoned legal eagle from the BJD, Pinaki Mishra is contesting against the newsroom veteran from the BJP, Sambit Patra. Mishra has held the Puri seat for three terms, once as a Congress MP and twice as a MP from BJD. Patra is quick on the tongue and may get some traction in some assembly segments (particularly Chilika and Nayagarh) but it will be a very tough fight against Mishra.

Another seat in this zone is Balasore where sitting MP, Rabindra Kumar Jena from the BJD is going against the veteran BJP leader and former RSS Pracharak, Pratap Chandra Sarangi. While Sarangi seemed to be the most favourable candidate, there were some concerns raised after ex-BJP leader and three-time MP from Balasore, Kharabela Swain rejoined the party. It appears like he would have been the better choice from Balasore but has instead been fielded from Kandhamal. But, Balasore has never been a BJD stronghold and since 1998, has been won thrice by BJP and once each by the Congress and BJD. Jena has been interrogated by the CBI on the chit fund scam and the shadow of corruption comes along with his candidature.

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The Berhampur seat is usually considered a Congress stronghold which the party managed to retain even at the height of the anti-Emergency agitation. In fact, the seat was considered so safe for the Congress that ex-prime minister, P V Narasimha Rao had contested from it in 1996. Ollywood actor Siddhant Mohapatra had won the seat for the BJD in 2009 and 2014. But, this time he has been denied the seat which has instead gone to the Congress candidate he defeated in the two previous terms, Chandrasekhar Sahu. Sahu has been a Congress MP from Berhampur in 2004 and has now joined the BJD and has immediately replaced Mohapatra. BJP has fielded its spokesperson, Bhrugu Baxipatra and Congress has gone with a new face, Chandra Sekhar Naidu who incidentally cannot speak in Odia (he speaks only Telugu, which is also an indication of the demography of the region).

The final seat in this region is Dhenkanal, which was held by BJD MP Tathagat Satpathy since 2004. The 4 time MP had decided to not contest elections and the BJD is yet to declare a replacement for him.

Westerly Winds Of Change?

While there are a lot of high profile candidates in the coastal districts, the real fight will be taking place in the 10 Western and Southern districts. 2014 had already thrown up a clear indication of the difference between the coastal and the Central and Western districts of the state. The BJP had not managed to bag any wins but was seen as having a stronger presence in the Western belt of the state. It lost the constituency of Bargarh by a narrow margin of 11000 votes and neighbouring Sambalpur by 30000 votes. It came second in the districts of Keonjhar, Bolangir, Mayurbhanj and Kalahandi. The only win that it managed to get was also in the Western part of Odisha.

Since then, a lot of water has flown through the Mahanadi (along with the escalating tension with the BJP ruled Chhattisgarh). The BJP in Odisha in 2014 was rudderless, with a very shaky organisational base and without a single identifiable face which could pose a challenge to the extremely popular Naveen Patnaik. Years of an alliance with the BJD and then the very acrimonious divorce had weakened the base of the BJP, even in districts where it used to enjoy clout. It was a massive and urgent task to strengthen that if the party wanted to have a shot at 2019. The big flip in the fortunes of the BJP came in 2017 in the form of the Zila Parishad elections. The BJP gained massively in Western Odisha and increased its tally from 36 to 306. While it is not prudent to extrapolate the results of local body elections to a parliamentary election, this clearly indicated that the BJP had worked on its organisational base and had concentrated on West Odisha as a potential game changer.

Let us take a look at the remaining 10 districts.

In 2014, the two Southern tribal districts of Koraput and Nabarangpur saw a very close fight play out between the BJD and the Congress. In Nabarangpur, the BJD won by a very thin margin of 2000 votes. The same two candidates are going to fight it out again but the difference is that Balabhadra Majhi who was the sitting MP will now contest on a BJP ticket. Pradeep Majhi was the Congress MP from the same constituency in 2009 and 2014 was too close a fight. Balabhadra Majhi was possibly denied a ticket by the BJD after gauging the direction of change. Increasingly, it looks like Congress will manage at least one LS seat from Odisha this time around.

While Nabarangpur is advantage Congress, Koraput has seen a complete reversal of fortunes for the party. Ex-Congress leader, nine-time MP and the former Chief Minister of Odisha, Giridhar Gamang joined the BJP in 2015. The second big development in the district was the induction of Jayaram Pangi into the BJP. Pangi is a two-time MLA from the Pottangi assembly segment and was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2009. Pangi has been contesting elections in Koraput since 1980 and has mostly lost elections to the formidable Giridhar Gamang. Pangi is contesting the 2019 elections from Koraput on a BJP ticket and is pitted against, Kaushalya Hikaka, the wife of sitting BJD MP Jhina Hikaka. With the induction of these two powerful leaders, Koraput seems to have the potential of a victory for BJP.

While Koraput seems to be progressing well for the BJP, the three seats which seemed to be safe bets for it, are seeing a lot of firefighting. Bargarh, Sundergarh and Sambalpur saw the BJP with a healthy vote share in 2019 and a lot of subsequent organisation building had put the party in a strong position. Veteran BJP leader, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak and national president of the Bajrang Dal, Subhas Chouhan had polled nearly 3.72 lakh votes for the BJP in 2014. He lost by a margin of just 11,000 votes. A staunch Hindutva voice in the region, Chouhan was hopeful of getting another chance in Bargarh and seemed confident of a win this time around.

But, in a surprising move by Dharmendra Pradhan, he was denied a ticket, and Bargarh which was increasingly looking like a safe seat for the BJP went to Suresh Pujari, who had contested from Sambalpur in 2014. A distraught Chouhan broke down into tears while quitting the BJP after a 30-year long association with the party. After quitting he stated that though he has left the BJP, his association with the RSS will continue forever.

In a strange turn of events, Chouhan was suggested by the BJP to contest the assembly election in BJP against Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Airing the animosity within the party in the open, Chouhan suggested that Dharmendra Pradhan as a potential CM candidate should instead contest against Patnaik.

Sundergarh was the only seat won by the BJP in 2014. Jual Oram is a four-time MP from the region but this time, it is going to be a steep fight for the constituency. Out of the seven assembly segments of Sundergarh, BJP has won only the seat of Rourkela in 2014. But, MLA Dilip Ray quit the BJP in December last year over simmering discontent. To add to the woes of the BJP, veteran tribal leader George Tirkey who has a hold on the Birmitrapur assembly segment joined the Congress earlier this year. Tirkey will be facing Jual Oram in a three-way fight. The third candidate in the fray is Sunita Biswal, daughter of former Congress chief Mminister, Hemananda Biswal.

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The only BJD MP from West Odisha who has been allowed to contest again is, Kalikesh Singhdeo from Bolangir. Once again it is a battle of the royal family, with Kalikesh contesting against his sister-in-law, Sangeeta Singhdeo, a three-time MP from Bolangir. In Sambalpur, which the BJP lost in 2014 by 36,000 votes, BJD has fielded the ex-works secretary of the government, Nalini Kanta Pradhan. It was under the tenure of Pradhan that nearly seven bridges and flyovers collapsed across the state and questions were raised about the tendering process. But, the BJD instead of taking action on him, has rewarded him with a Lok Sabha ticket.

The other high profile contest in Western Odisha is in Kandhamal where media baron, philanthropist and business magnate Achyuta Samanta of the BJD is going against Kharabela Swain of the BJP. Swain, a three-time BJP MP from Balasore has rejoined the party after a 10-year break. After the demise of her husband, Hemendra Chandra Singh, Pratyusha Rajeshwari Singh contested the by elections on a BJD ticket and managed to get 61 per cent of the vote share. But, Achyuta Samantha who had by then already warmed up to the ruling dispensation and got a RS seat, replaced Pratyusha. She has since then quit the party and joined the BJP.

The BJD in its last push before the elections brought in the hugely publicised KALIA scheme which provides a financial assistance of Rs 25,000 to small and marginal farmers and livelihood support to landless households. Naveen Patnaik had solidified his base among the rural population and particularly among rural women with his populist schemes and KALIA was just the shot in the arm needed before heading into a crucial election.

But even with the immense popularity of the CM, the hold of populist schemes and a stronghold over significant pockets in the state, the BJD this time round seems jittery. This is evident from the fact that with the exception of three MPs, every other MP in the 18 declared seats have been replaced by the BJD. This includes veterans from Bhadrak and Bhubaneshwar.

It is too early to conclude if the BJP with its own problems can significantly dent the ruling party’s chances in the state. But at the beginning of the election season, the mood in Odisha clearly points towards one thing. After decades, TINA (there is no alternative) has finally found its way out of Odisha. Now there is an alternative and it is glaringly visible.

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