What explains BJP’s spectacular performance in Odisha panchayat polls

BJP’s astounding performance in recently concluded panchayat polls of Odisha could not generate the kind of discussions and analysis it should have in the mainstream media. Primarily because Odisha is one of the states that often falls off radar of the Delhi media, and secondly, the focus was soon shifted to Maharashtra municipal polls and then some contrived drama and violence by leftists on Delhi University.

However, it is an important development that shouldn’t lose focus just due to news cycle. This article analyses the factors that contributed to the rise of BJP in the state.

Let’s first begin by understanding why the ruling BJD (Biju Janta Dal) was almost invincible in the state all these years. Current Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik won in year 2000, and since then he has been winning elections after elections in the state. He was in alliance with BJP till 2009.

Naveen Patnaik’s clean image:
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To his credit, there is not a single allegation of personal involvement of Naveen Patnaik in any corruption or scandal in the state. He lives a simple life. He doesn’t drive a fancy car or go on foreign holidays. Just a few months back, BJP’s Dharmendra Pradhan, who is now being seen as someone the party may project as an alternative to Patnaik, had acknowledged Patnaik’s simplicity and said that he was a role model in Indian politics.

TINA factor:

Though the Chief Minister is widely popular, it doesn’t automatically mean that the party won’t face anti-incumbency. However, BJD was lucky as Congress was the only other option available to people till 2009 (when BJD-BJP alliance broke).

Congress did a terrible job as opposition. It is a party marred with infighting, and thus it could never given confidence to Odiya people that they can provide a stable and honest alternative to BJD. Ironically, the Leader of Opposition Bhupinder Singh left Congress and joined BJD before the 2014 elections.

If the state Congress was divided and incompetent, the central leadership could have taken things in control. However, for some reason, even the central Congress was rarely vocal against Naveen Patnaik. A possible explanation of it could be Naveen Patnaik knowing Sonia Gandhi much before both joined politics.

In BJP too, there was a lot of infighting before 2014. Central leadership of BJP too was soft on BJD as it was hoping to get BJD’s support in 2014, had there been a hung parliament. After all BJD was a much better ally during NDA-1 when compared to other alliance partners (no blackmail politics).

Friendly Media:

Editors of two of the most widely read newspapers Dharitri (Tathagata Satpathy) and Prajatantra (Bhartruhari Mahtab) are party MPs. BJD MP Jay Panda‘s family owns the most watched news channel OTV. Also, most newspapers and news channels depend on ad revenue from the state government to run their business.

With Congress incompetent and local media friendly, the state government had virtually no opposition. As mentioned earlier, the Delhi media hardly highlights any major issues of Odisha, and they see the state politics through their own binaries.

For example, the ‘liberal’ Delhi media believes that Naveen Patnaik is a secular leader who broke alliance with BJP because of Kandhamal riots. It is a lie that has been repeated thousand times. The riots happened in August 2008. BJP-BJD alliance completed five years in 2009. BJD, after realising that it could win 2009 election on its own, broke alliance with BJP. After the alliance broke, Naveen Patnaik had said, “Unfortunately, the seat-sharing have failed. we will be fighting separately.” Why would a ‘secular’ BJD discuss seat sharing with ‘communal’ BJP post Kandhamal riots?

Better governance than its predecessor:

There is a famous proverb in Odia “Nahi Mamu Tharu Kana Mamu Bhala” (Half a loaf is better than none). People who have lived under Congress rule will obviously find BJD better. There was absolute lawlessnessextreme poverty, scandals and corruption during Janki Patnaik’s Congress rule (1980-1989, 1995-1999).

Proactive measures and the relief work done by BJD during Hudhud and Phailin is way better than what Congress govt did during the 1999 super cyclone. People in coastal Odisha can never forget the corruption and incompetence of congress during 99 cyclone.

This is the reason that Congress has failed to come back to power after losing in 2000.

One rupee rice:

Naveen Patnaik has introduced many socialist schemes in Odisha, but his most popular scheme is one rupee rice scheme. Ask any poor who voted BJD in 2014, he will tell you one rupee rice scheme is the biggest reason for his support. Though majority of the subsidy in this scheme is provided by the central government, Congress did nothing to convey it to voters.

So what changed in this Panchayat election?

Governance failures became visible:

Some of the worst disasters of Naveen’s nearly two decade rule has happened in the last year. It is almost like a deja vu of Janki Patnaik era. I am listing a few of it:

  1. September to December 2016: Hundreds of kids died in Malkangiri district of Odisha due to Japanese Encephalitis disease.
  2. Oct 2016: 26 killed and many injured in a major fire accident in a Bhubaneswar based hospital. Many hospitals in city flouted safety norms but administration did nothing about it. Health Minster Atanu Nayak’s wife was working in a college which was run by the owner of the hospital.
  3. August 2016: Dana Majhi, a poor tribal from Kalahandi carried his wife’s body for 10 kilometers when spotted by some local reporters. The image of him carrying the body and his daughter crying next to him is fresh in peoples mind when they went to vote.
  4. July 2016: 19 children died in a single village in a period of 3 months due to malnutrition.
  5. May 2016: Murder of an engineering student Rishi. There is serious allegation of a BJD leader’s involvement in this murder and the investigation has been shady so far.
  6. Sep 2015: 61 infants died with in 2 weeks in a hospital which is a specialist institute for kids (Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Post Graduate Institute of Pediatrics).
  7. Apart from these, last year also saw accusations of some BJD leaders involved in chit fund scam. CBI is investigating and homes and offices of BJD leaders were raided.
What BJP did right to replace Congress as the only option to BJD?

There is no infighting going on in Odisha BJP in recent years. Dharmendra Pradhan is the tallest leader and no other party leader seems to have a problem with it. He can match Naveen Patnaik’s clean and simple image. He is perceived as efficient and hard working. People believe he is doing a good job as a minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas.

This was helped by the fact that BJP leaders campaigned tirelessly during this election. Dharmendra Pradhan and other leaders did multiple public rallies every single day. BJP’s state in charge Arun Singh and national joint secretary (organisation) Soudan Singh worked really hard to build a strong organisation.

The party effectively communicated to the public that majority of the subsidy in the one rupee rice scheme is provided by the central government. BJD marketed another hugely popular 108 ambulance scheme as its own. It was forced to repaint the ambulances after it received a letter from central government asking to re-brand it.

Apart from this, Narendra Modi is hugely popular across party line in Odisha, and the party is benefiting from his goodwill. Demonetisation is also very popular among masses. Almost everyone I knew and spoke to supports the decision. Even BJD MP Jay Panda agrees with this assertion.

What Next?

Naveen Patnaik told his colleagues to wake up to this verdict. He should also wake up to the reality and improve his governance, else BJP can throw serious challenge in the next elections. He also has to act against party leaders accused in the chit fund scam. Chief Minister has the challenge to not only improve real governance, but also the image, which has taken a beating recently.

On the other hand, BJP has to convince the voters in Odisha that it can be the real alternative to BJD and it can provide the real development. This article explains the challenges ahead for the BJP.

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