2022 Odisha Polls: Big 2 In Big Fight
Results of the Panchayat and ULB polls in 2022 will prove decisive for 10 important reasons, writes Soumyajit Pattnaik
Politics in Odisha has never been the same again after the 2017 Panchayat Polls. Till 2017, Panchayat polls were quite dreary, never attracted eyeballs on television and outcomes were already foretold. 2017 Panchayat Polls for the first time marked the rise of BJP as a major political force in the State by relegating Congress to the third position.
In the 2014 Assembly polls, BJD had won 117 seats with 43.41% vote share, Congress won 16 seats with 25.71% votes and the BJP won 10 seats with 17.99% votes. Congress had garnered nearly 8% more popular votes than BJP in 2014 Assembly polls. But in 2017 Panchayat polls, BJP zoomed ahead of the Congress by winning 297 Zilla Parishad seats as compared to 60 ZP seats for the Congress. The BJP cemented its position as the second most important political force in the state after 2017.
As the quinquennial Panchayat polls are hardly two months away, Odisha is waiting with bated breath to know the outcome this time. Panchayat polls will be followed by the Urban Polls. Results of these twin polls are important for ten reasons.
First, the 2022 Panchayat and urban polls will determine whether State politics has become distinctly bipolar. In other words, the poll results will tell us whether it will be a direct fight between BJD and BJP in 2024 General Elections with the Congress not in reckoning in the state. In the Pipili by-election held on September 30, 2021, Congress got only 2.35% (4228) votes while the BJD got 53.55% (96,196) votes and the BJP 42.08% (75,589) votes. The Congress is increasingly becoming a fringe player with the state witnessing mostly a direct contest between the BJD and the BJP. The 2022 Panchayat and Urban poll results will present a clear picture whether the Congress can still make a political comeback or become a forlorn entity in Odisha. The Congress slide began in 2017 and 2022 will tell us whether it has completely crumbled or staging a comeback with renewed support.
Second, the Panchayat and Urban poll results will be largely viewed as a referendum on the performance of the Naveen Patnaik Government since 2019. People will give their verdict on the government’s handling of the Covid crisis, providing much needed succour to needy persons during lockdowns and shutdown and mitigating income loss for a vast majority of people. The government can also gauge the popular mood on the BSKY smart health cards, high school transformation scheme and heritage redevelopment projects.
Third, the results will show the impact of the vociferous Opposition attacks especially against two ministers after two gruesome murders rocked the state. In 2021, two grisly murders sparked off relentless attacks on two BJD ministers by the BJP and Congress. If Dibyashankar Mishra in Junagarh and Pratap Jena in Mahanga can bite the dust in the forthcoming twin polls, the Opposition will feel vindicated and fire fresh salvoes to nail the government.
But if the two ministers can win majority of ZP seats/sarpanch & block chairpersons, the Opposition campaign will run out of steam and the BJD can shrug off such attacks in future as well. If such shrill and concerted attacks within and outside Assembly could not yield the desired results, then they have to rethink their strategy to cross swords with the government in future.
Fourth, if the results go awry for some parties, it will trigger internal convulsions within those parties. The 2017 panchayat results propelled CM Naveen Patnaik to make required changes in the ministry. New faces were brought in and few ministers were shown the exit doors for their lacklustre performance.
After the 2017 panchayat polls, the internal feud within the Congress exacerbated further and demands to change Prasad Harichandan intensified. And ultimately, Niranjan Patnaik replaced Prasad before the 2019 polls.
Similarly, the BJP emboldened by the 2017 performance stepped up their attacks to dislodge the BJD government in 2019.
After the BJP won 297 Zilla Parishad seats in 2017, many thought the saffron party was within the striking distance of power. Before the BJD could come to terms with the stupendous BJP performance in Panchayat Polls, the BJP decided to go for the jugular. BJP held its National Executive in April 2017 at Janata Maidan, Bhubaneswar which was addressed by PM Narendra Modi, party President Amit Shah, UP CM Yogi Adityanath, the then Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and a host of top leaders and CMs. PM Modi also did a road show in Bhubaneswar. The full might of the most feared electoral machine in the country was unleashed in Odisha after the 2017 Panchayat Polls to deny Naveen Patnaik a fifth term as CM.
Fifth, if the BJP does an encore in 2022 or improves its tally further, we can expect renewed aggression from the BJP to thwart the BJD juggernaut in 2024. If the BJP tally plummets, it’s likely to trigger blame game within the state unit and the rumblings within the party can lead to the clamour for a new state unit chief.
Sixth, the twin polls are of utmost importance for the BJD. Party leaders are quite upbeat about besting the Opposition, but no opinion poll can accurately capture the pulse of the people as an actual election. The BJD has to win much more than 473 zilla parishad seats which it won in 2017 to convey a strong message to its rivals.
The Congress had won 60 ZP seats in 2017. If the tally plummets to a new low, the ongoing tussle between Niranjan Patnaik and his detractors within the party will escalate further.
Seventh, we can draw appropriate conclusions about the mood of the farming community in the state after the panchayat polls. If there is acute mismanagement in the procurement of paddy or failure on the part of the government to provide the required assistance to the farmers, then their anger will be reflected in the BJD tally.
Also, it will be a time to gauge the impact of the three controversial farm laws which led to widespread agitations in Punjab, Delhi and other parts of the country. The three laws have been repealed by the Union Government, but the panchayat polls can still indicate if the farming community in Odisha has been deeply aggrieved by the prolonged agitations in Delhi and elsewhere. If the BJP tally of 297 will decline by 50-60 seats, it may be construed as the dwindling faith of the farming community in the BJP especially after the Delhi standoff.
Eighth, the elections are of vital importance for the younger leaders within the BJD who are gradually being entrusted with key responsibilities. In 2014 polls, several young MLAs were made ministers. But after the 2017 jolt, they had to resign. Now, several young BJD leaders are in charge of the party organisation. If the party can vastly improve its 473 tally in 2022, the position of the younger leaders will get strengthened and we can see more young blood manning key party posts with renewed vigour.
Ninth, after the 2017 polls, it was believed that that BJD lagged behind in social media campaigns as the party was not tech-savvy like the BJP. The 2022 panchayat polls will offer an opportunity to judge how the BJD has traversed the social media distance in the last 5 years. And it will be a key component of the campaign for 2024.
Tenth, the role of several key bureaucrats will either get strengthened further or they will draw flak depending upon the nature of the verdict in the twin polls.