Odisha is not going to be an easy battle for BJP

The architect of the election juggernaut Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, yesterday made it clear that, he is not resting on the laurels of the spectacular North East victory. He would not term it as the golden period of BJP, even though they are ruling 19 states, till BJP has its government formed in Kerala, West Bengal and Odisha.

Quoting Shah verbatim, “Jab tak Odisha, West Bengal aur Kerala mein BJP nahi aa jaati tab tak party ka golden period shuru nahi hoga. Karnataka mein to hum jeetenge hi“. If you interpret it in a certain way, what Shah means here is, though Karnataka is not going to be much of a struggle, they have to pull up their socks for the other three states.

However, among the three, Odisha is the only state where BJP once had a government, though in a coalition with Biju Janta Dal (BJD). This makes Odisha the easiest among the three, or is it? Let’s explore.

The current BJD dispensation headed by Naveen Patnaik is ruling its 4th term with 18 year already in government. Out of this, BJP was a coalition partner for the first 8 years from 2000 to 2008 when BJD severed its ties with BJP citing differences in seat sharing and due to BJP’s alleged involvement in Kandhamal riots which BJD thought will hurt its “secular credentials”.

Since then, the BJD has only added to its seat count and to Naveen Patnaik’s charisma, and in 2014 it had a massive clean sweep winning 117 out of 147 seats in the assembly. To unseat BJD with the current popularity wave it is riding, BJP has to do some serious thinking and solid groundwork before it can claim to win people’s mandate. 

What works for BJD

The first, foremost and probably the only pillar on which BJD is standing ground is Naveen Patnaik. His clean image, no-nonsense attitude and non-controversial as well as non-confrontational attitude has helped him not earn a lot of political detractors as opposed to the West Bengal or Kerala government. Outside political circles, his detractors or even BJP voters in general don’t talk too harsh about him. The same can not be said about Mamata or Left in Kerala.

Naveen doesn’t play religion card nor the caste card, thereby closing this avenue for opposition to consolidate votes. He doesn’t comment on unnecessary national issues where he doesn’t have a stake, he lies low, has not shown any explicit national ambition making him a amicable guy from both end of political spectrum. How many times have you heard Naveen commenting on Modi and compare that stat with Mamata.

Overall, he is seen as a sane, docile and all weather political leader as opposed to the rabble-rouser counterpart next door. One particular precedent I would like to state here is, both West Bengal and Odisha saw huge chit fund scams to the tunes of hundreds of crores. CBI raided and arrested leaders from both TMC and BJD, however the reaction from both leaders were poles apart.

While Mamata cried central govt vendetta, Naveen calmly passed it with the cliched “Law will take its own course”. Whether he is trying to stall the investigation through backdoor channels and protecting his men is a matter of speculation, but bottomline is, he came as a clean person while Mamata came across as someone shielding the corrupt.

What also helps Naveen is his authoritative image and almost a stranglehold over party matters. You can’t be in the bad books of Naveen and be in BJD. You have to toe the Naveen’s line while in BJD. However, through all this, Naveen doesn’t come as the strict dictator, in other words, he doesn’t allow the indisciplined member to be a martyr. No tall leader, after being expelled by Naveen has seen any remarkable success in politics, Jay Panda’s fate remains to be seen. But in all of this cases, people see the expelled member being the offender deserving the fate than Naveen being the authoritarian. 

Naveen till date has not undertaken any massive reforms, which ironically works in his favour. Take Narendra Modi for example. In 4 years of power, he has taken some gigantic decisions with mammoth political consequences. Demonetisation, GST, Aadhaar seeding to name a few. How much has he been successful is for the public to judge but when you undertake programs of such epic proportions, you lay a ground for people to judge you on your intention, execution and nobility of the programs. When you steer clear of any major reform, you don’t yield ground for the public to judge you! That works hugely in favour of Naveen.

And last but not the least, the shadow of his father, the legendary Biju Patnaik, adds to the  aura of Naveen, giving him credibility. These factors combined overshadows the 18 year anti-incumbency.

What doesn’t work for BJP

To weaken Naveen’s fort, the first thing the state BJP needs is a strong local leadership, which they are lacking. They don’t have a face who can be a credible replacement for Naveen. Someone, who exudes confidence and tells people that BJP can deliver but more importantly, deliver it better than Naveen.

The local leadership is highly fragmented. Senior leaders like Dilip Ray and Bijay Mohapatra are totally sidelined. So much so that they are not even invited for local meetings and campaigns. It’s anybody’s guess that, they are not going to contest on BJP’s ticket in 2019 if some drastic measures are not taken. State president Basant Panda is uninspiring. Old timers and Sangh affiliates like Pratap Sadangi are not in a position to take decisions. Sarat Pujari doesn’t gel well with Dharmendra Pradhan.

Dharmendra Pradhan himself is still seen as an outsider. He may be a good administrator but lacks electoral wisdom. His execution of the flagship Ujjwala scheme may go onto become one of the bullet points when Narendra Modi goes back to public asking for votes in 2019 but it doesn’t resonate with people here. They don’t connect with Dharmendra Pradhan. Fact remains that Dharmendra Pradhan neither has shown the electoral acumen who can lead his party to win against a formidable BJD. He won a Lok Sabha election last in 2004.

To add to this, the personal attacks on Naveen are proving to be detrimental. As a responsible opposition, BJP should show the inefficiency, corruption, nepotism and ineptitude of the government and BJD. Naveen is still seen as a personally clean leader. Any personal attack on Naveen Patnaik is not going to help the cause. What helps BJP is a weak and totally fractured state Congress unit. The BJP should try to consolidate Congress votes in its favour apart from luring BJD voters to its fold. But that strategy seems lacking.

If you look at BJP’s campaign in other states, one of the major focus is, how they are going to bring about changes if and when they come to power. The biggest two successes of BJP in state elections in recent past are Tripura and Uttar Pradesh and this was the central point of the campaign. In Odisha, that is totally lacking.

One of the most cliched comment of Naveen Patnaik, which is joked about among Odia people, is “Kendra Abahela” or the “centre’s (govt) neglect”. This is where BJP can earn some brownie points. For the first time, Odisha has given only 1 MP to the ruling dispensation at centre but has 2 cabinet ministers. BJP govt in the centre has not shown any step motherly attitude despite having a opposition govt at state. In fact, many flagship programmes of the petroleum ministry, headed by Dharmendra Pradhan have been inaugurated from Odisha itself.

IOCL refinery has been completed and made functional. Odisha has gotten it’s fair share in Sagarmala and NHDP programmes. Railway budget allocation, every year since 2014 has been much higher than previous years. Odisha got 3 airports in the UDAN scheme.

Even after increasing the grants in almost all departments, if the parameters and indices of the state are still not improving, then Naveen Patnaik clearly lacks execution skill. This can be a used as a narrative to make a headway into BJD’s claimed success story. Also, a subtle messaging about having same party at centre and state will definitely help the state to be put on higher growth trajectory should be tried as well.

Naveen has ruled for 4 terms and clearly headed for a record 5th term unless BJP gets its pieces together. There is a BJP uprising in the state and Naveen has taken note of it. In his 20 years of political career, Naveen for the 1st time, spent a night at during campaigning, during Bijepur by-poll which the party won. That tells a lot about how seriously Naveen is taking 2019.

This probably will be the last innings of Naveen before his retirement and he will try to score a ton here. Question is, what will it take for the BJP to unseat him but more importantly, does the state BJP have it in them to achieve this? Only time will tell.