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Congress Mukt Odisha? Challenges ahead for BJP in the eastern state

While the nation is keeping a close track on Uttar Pradesh elections, a remarkable turnaround story is developing eastward in Odisha. The political equations there appear to be going through a tectonic shift with BJP stunning everyone by their performance in the recently concluded panchayat polls.

Although the results have not been announced “officially” yet, the writing on the wall is clear. The main opposition party Congress has been virtually decimated while the ruling BJD (Biju Janta Dal) has been weakened, though it has retained its top position. However, what has surprised everyone is BJP’s performance.

In last elections, the saffron party held merely 36 seats out of 850 odd seats in these panchayat polls. This year, they are all set to win over 300 seats, finishing second to BJD that is expected to win around 440 seats, while Congress will be left with 60 odd seats.

Not only it hints at a Congress Mukt Odisha, but even the ruling BJD is concerned with this massive turnaround in BJP’s political fortunes. This is what Chief Minister and BJD boss Naveen Patnaik said earlier today:

So what does this mean for the electoral dynamics of Odisha and India as whole, particularly for the 2019 Lok Sabha election?

When we talk about the eastern states, it is well known that a “Modi wave” in 2014 contributed to 73 seats in Uttar Pradesh along with 32 seats in Bihar. It is unrealistic to expect a similar performance in 2019. Uttar Pradesh was virtually a magic, while Bihar has a very strong alliance against Modi now.

Therefore increasing the catchment area is a very important goal for BJP/NDA in run up to 2019. Question is, can Odisha contribute?

The dynamics of the state of Odisha are contributed from BBSR (Bhubaneswar). It is the bureaucratic capital of the state with enormous cultural heritage. The officialdom plays a strong role in maintaining BJD’s power. Of course, it is helped by the fact that the main opposition Congress has been on life-support since 2000, except for a brief period in 2009. That merits a separate article.

Now, current BJP performance states that it has picked up areas across the state by some clever campaigning in places like Mayurbhanj, Balangir and Kalahandi. But substantial part of the state is in the Mahanadi delta, and they hold disproportionate power.

If someone wins big in the coastal districts, he can surely hope to cross 15 seats in the state (Lok Sabha). In fact, other than 2009, Odisha has been known to give sweeping mandates from a long time, like 20-1 scenario.

But, some ground rules need to be followed.

It is a reality that Odisha is one of the poorer states. But, this is not palatable to the normal Odia. In fact, statistically, if one takes out the tribal districts, Odisha will actually be quite advanced culturally and educationally. Districts like Khurda (near BBSR) have 91% urban literacy while Jagatsinghpur has 86% rural literacy.

Hence, the conundrum for a politician is very messy. He can’t say, Odisha is poor. That hurts the ego of the soft-spoken Odia. He is also fiercely proud of his language. Making a mistake like typing Orissa or Oriya or Udiya is a recipe for disaster. This does not, however, mean that there is language chauvinism. You can easily get along in most urban areas of the state with English, Hindi or Oriya Odia. Essentially, the tone and tenor of communication becomes vital.

But attacking Naveen Patnaik for his Odia skills is a big No-No. It sounds like an easy target, might even get some gains, but state level sweeps will be elusive if that happens. Let us also not forget, Odisha has a history of politicians who come from a literary background; poets, authors etc. Their average performance was just too pathetic in the administration.

And of course, the Biju Patnaik legacy looms large. He is pretty much a superman. Lot of people feel that he did not get enough respect outside Odisha. So, in this cesspool of negativity, how does one win?

By a positive campaign. Odisha has a hidden fascination with industry. It pisses them off that everyone says something like “Odisha is poor with so many mineral resources”. What no one understands is, that, these mineral resources never gained Odisha much. This tweet might explain that somewhat.

What might help is a campaign that focuses on Odisha’s maritime past. The old memories of Sadhabas who used to travel to Bali, still exists in their festivals. Bali Jatra is a very popular festival. And the food is also quite awesome.

Also, there is a need to tap on to the diaspora of Odias. You will find them everywhere. A lot of entrepreneurs in Bangalore have Odia roots. It will help if a reach out happens to them.

And some deft political management is required. Odisha is intrinsically religious with Hinduism at the core of the heritage. But, religious polarization will not work. In fact, BJP suffered badly post the Kandhamal riots. The perception was that, they gave Odisha a bad name. That has changed now. But, the core of Odisha has always been sympathetic to BJP. If BJP can respect that, they can sweep the state.

The other issue to keep in mind is the Mahanadi water dispute. Naveen Patnaik has moved Supreme Court against Chhatisgarh government over sharing of water. Chhatisgarh has a BJP government, so things can become delicate and complex there for the party.

By and large, BJP has actually been quite good for Odisha. They have given significant budgets for the Railways in Odisha, but implementation is still a concern. Some focus will go a long way.

But Naveen Patnaik has been good for Odisha too after the disastrous Congress years. And people like Jairam Ramesh from Congress have not helped matters.

In essence, a positive campaign will go a long way. The state needs a vision. A vision which involves industry, culture and basic religiosity.

If they do that, and invite a few good leaders, they can get 20 seats. The Vidhan Sabha is more complex, but, Lok Sabha is possible.

Question is, will BJP in Odisha have the right vision and not make mistakes?

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