Why The Results Of The By-Poll In Odisha Should Worry Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Nov 7, 2022 03:35 PM +05:30 IST
Why The Results Of The By-Poll In Odisha Should Worry Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. (Government of Odisha/Wikimedia Commons)
  • BJD’s defeat in Dhamnagar by-poll, by Suryabanshi Suraj, is a significant development — more so since the assembly constituency is part of a BJD fortress. 

    This setback has exposed the vulnerability of the BJD.

Since 2009, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha has won all by-polls in the state. But that impressive record was broken this time by a 27-year-old contesting on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket.

The saffron party’s Suryabanshi Suraj retained the Dhamnagar Assembly Constituency, where by-polls were necessitated by the demise of incumbent Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Bishnu Charan Sethi. 

Sethi (Suraj’s father) had wrested the seat, which falls in Bhadrak that is a BJD bastion, from the Naveen Patnaik party in 2019. He succumbed to Covid in July this year. 

Sethi defeated the BJD’s Rajendra Das in the 2019 assembly elections by a margin of 4,625 votes. He had got a 47.47 per cent vote share while Das’s vote share stood at 45.67 per cent. 

Suraj not only bettered his father’s performance by nearly doubling his victory margin over BJD’s Abanti Das, the BJD’s vote share also declined this time. 

Suraj, who becomes the youngest MLA in Odisha now, won by 9,881 votes and a vote share of 49.09 per cent while the BJD’s vote share declined by 2.58 per cent. 

Dhamnagar is part of the Bhadrak Lok Sabha seat and one of the seven assembly segments. The other six assembly segments are all held by the BJD. The Bhadrak Lok Sabha seat has been held by the BJD since 1998. 

Repeating his father’s victory, and bettering it by nearly double the margin while also increasing his vote share, is no small feat on Suraj’s part. More so since the assembly constituency is part of a BJD fortress. 

But more than the BJP’s victory, the results of the by-polls is cause for serious concern for the BJD and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

Patnaik has been the Chief Minister of the state uninterruptedly since March 2000. He has been the undisputed leader of the state and has been hugely popular. 

Patnaik has craftily dodged anti-incumbency by denying nominations to MLAs, and even ministers, whose popularity ratings have dropped.

But while this smart tactic has deflected anti-incumbency and allowed Patnaik to remain in power, it has also triggered resentment within the party. 

BJD MLAs and ministers who have been denied tickets in the past have been seething silently. Some have revolted, but those revolts and shows of defiance had failed in the past. 

But of late, the pent-up anger and resentment among many BJD leaders who have been sidelined and neglected is coming out in the open. Revolts, though localised, have been erupting like small bush fires. 

Pertinently, a BJD leader Rajendra Das, who was denied the party ticket this time and contested as an independent, caused a dent in the BJD’s support base by polling 815 votes and getting a vote share of 4.98 per cent. 

Das had won Dhamnagar on the BJD ticket in 2009 and had defeated Sethi by a margin of 4,944 votes. But he was replaced by Muktikanta Mandal in 2014 because his party leadership felt support for him had eroded considerably due to his alleged poor performance as a legislator. 

Mandal defeated Sethi in 2014, but by a higher margin of 12,192 votes. In 2019, the BJD leadership decided to field Rajendra Kumar Das once again from this seat, but he lost to Sethi that year. 

This defeat (in 2019) prompted Naveen Patnaik to drop Das as the party candidate and give the ticket to Abanti Das. 

Rajendra Das, a longtime member of the BJD,  rebelled and filed his nomination as an independent candidate. Many top leaders of the party tried their best to get Das to withdraw his candidature, but the latter stood firm. He was supported by other BJD rebels. 

Naveen Patnaik is, thus, faced with a fledgling rebellion that threatens to get out of control. Age is not on Patnaik’s side — he is 77 now and suffering from a host of debilitating ailments.

A powerful cabal of bureaucrats are actually running the state, and that has bred a lot of resentment among senior leaders of the BJD. 

Even senior cabinet ministers feel sidelined by this cabal of officers who enjoy the direct and unstinted patronage of the ailing Chief Minister who runs the state through them. 

The septuagenarian Patnaik is too old to smoothen ruffled feathers and snuff out the revolts that are slowly breaking out. 

A big worry for Patnaik is an aggressive BJP snapping at his heels. Under Dharmendra Pradhan, the BJP had adopted an aggressive stance and has been carrying out a high-voltage campaign against Patnaik. 

Also, anti-incumbency against the long-serving Chief Minister is gaining momentum and Patnaik’s earlier tactics of deflecting the blame to MLAs and ministers is not likely to work anymore, 

“Governance has stagnated since the Chief Minister is old and ailing and has lost his grip on the administration. A few corrupt and powerful bureaucrats are running the state and even ministers are mere rubber stamps. Odisha has seen no progress in recent years and the Chief Minister can no longer bank on his past glory and performance,” senior BJP leader K C Mohapatra told Swarajya over phone from Bhubaneshwar. 

The BJD’s defeat in Dhamnagar is a significant development. It has dealt a psychological blow to the party which has not lost a single by-poll over the past 13 years. This setback has exposed the vulnerability of the BJD. 

The victory at Dhamnagar will also embolden the BJP to sharpen its attacks on the BJD.

A combative Pradhan — Union Minister for Education — said after the by-poll results: “The results reflect the mood of the people of Odisha as well as Odisha’s trust in the decisive and credible leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. 

Senior BJP leaders of the state unit told Swarajya that the party will step up its campaign against Patnaik and the BJD from now.

“Our single-minded focus and goal is to form the government in the state in 2024 and also win at least 16 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha in the next elections (in 2024). Naveen Patnaik and the BJD will fade into history two years from now,” said Mohapatra. 

The BJD will also face a severe disadvantage in countering the BJP’s proposed blitzkrieg because it has no one other than the old and ailing Naveen Patnaik to counter the saffron party’s aggressive propaganda. 

A suspicious and distrusting Patnaik has never encouraged and groomed a second line of leadership. He has not anointed a successor. 

Not only will this place the BJD at a severe disadvantage, it can also lead to the splintering of the party in the post-Patnaik phase. 

But for now, Patnaik has a lot on his plate. Tackling growing dissidence, countering mounting anti-incumbency, and battling an aggressive BJP in his twilight years are the biggest political challenges the feeble septuagenarian faces today.

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