By Soumyajit Pattnaik
The battle-lines are clearly drawn. Within the next 50 days, Odisha will pronounce its verdict whether to repose faith in Naveen Patnaik for a record fifth term or bid goodbye to the BJD. After the panchayat polls in early 2017, the political temperature in Odisha has been continuously soaring. So are the smear campaigns and shrill debates. The war of words has escalated as the BJP launched its Mission 120+ and the BJD waging a tenacious fightback to reclaim the political space ceded to the BJP especially in Zilla Parishad polls.
At this juncture, let’s examine the arguments proffered by the BJP as its leaders hit the campaign trail in Odisha. First, the BJP is highlighting PM Narendra Modi’s strong and decisive leadership and the saffron party is terming any alternative to PM Modi as sheer “chaos”. This argument that the alternative is “chaos” will cut no ice with the electorate of Odisha as the state has not witnessed any political instability under Naveen Patnaik during the last 19-years. Odisha is immune from defections and “resort politics” in the last 19-years.
The other campaign theme of the BJP is that Odisha’s development is lagging far behind and the saffron party is now floating a new “double engine” theory to attract voters. Will this “double engine theory” be sufficient to swing the voters of Odisha?
If the “double engine theory” is the panacea to plug the loopholes in all the states, then the BJP would not have lost the three Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh recently. These three states powered by the double engines could have attained spectacular growth from 2014-18 and set new benchmarks for the entire country. Aided by the “double engines”, these three states could have met all the expectations of the electorate. But the “double engine” script went awry in these states.
Besides “chaos” and “double engine”, the BJP is vociferously questioning the performance of Naveen Patnaik during the last 19-years. Top BJP leaders have also vehemently criticised Naveen as a “fused/burnt transformer” and questioned his style of governance. At the national level, there have been similar allegations on how the PMO has eclipsed the other ministries and the prominent role played by few powerful functionaries at the Centre. Congress president Rahul Gandhi in all his campaign speeches in Odisha has now repeated umpteen times that the style of functioning of the PM and the CM are quite similar.
For the people of the state, what matters most is not the style but the substance of Naveen Patnaik’s governance. A government has to be judged by how it impacts the lives of the people and no government can escape the wrath of the electorate if it fails to meet the expectations of the masses. The verdict of the people on May 23 will settle the question of whether Naveen Patnaik has become a “fused transformer” or continues to be a “real transformer”.
It’s also important to ponder how Naveen Patnaik has managed to preserve his charisma after 19 years of uninterrupted rule in Odisha. Change has been the constant companion of Naveen Patnaik. The changes engineered by CM Naveen are both incremental and dramatic. And thus there is never a dull moment as Naveen keeps all guessing on his next moves and the decisions often defy all predictions.
Naveen Patnaik has been there for last 19 years. But everything around him has changed. Many of the MLAs have changed, ministers have changed and the bureaucratic teams have changed. Naveen’s governance system is not static where most people in the power corridors are on the tenterhooks and thus there is always a sense of apprehension on what to expect next.
After long 19 years, the Naveen phenomenon is still shrouded in mystery. Naveen Patnaik has not allowed anyone to intrude into his own private world. He’s extremely courteous, speaks less and has the patience of a Job. It will be advisable for his political challengers to delve deep into the factors on why Naveen’s charisma has endured for nearly two decades.
At this juncture, it’s also pertinent to ask whether the BJP has emerged as a formidable force in Odisha to replace the BJD. In 2014, the BJP vote-share was less than the Congress but the saffron party has clearly overtaken the Congress as the main challenger to the BJD.
The BJP campaign in Odisha has been powered mostly by the personal charisma of PM Narendra Modi. Odisha presents an interesting political scenario where Narendra Modi is miles ahead of Rahul Gandhi and others as the PM candidate. Similarly, Naveen Patnaik is virtually unchallenged as the CM face among all probable CM aspirants as per several recent opinion polls. In such a scenario, it’s probable that same voters may vote for BJD in Assembly elections and BJP in Lok Sabha polls.
But such dual voting has never been witnessed in Odisha. In 2004, 2009 & 2014, simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha elections have taken place in the state and each of these elections, party preference for MLAs and MPs have remained the same for the voters of Odisha barring a mild increase of 3-4%% of votes for BJP MP candidates in 2014.
When both the PM and CM have high popularity, the organisational strength of the BJD and BJP will also determine the outcome of the polls. Discerning readers know which party has taken deep roots in the state and the wide chasm between the two parties in terms of organisational strength is obvious to everyone. Apart from the CM face, the choice of MLA candidates will also influence voters a great deal.
So far as the CM face is concerned, all the aspirants are clearly lagging far behind Naveen Patnaik as per opinion polls. Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan is projecting himself as the CM face of the BJP. But at this stage, he’s merely basking in the reflected glory of PM Modi and he’s yet to carve a special support base of his own among the state’s electorate.
It seems that the goodwill created by PM Modi among the electorate is being squandered away by the CM aspirants of the BJP who are famous for their petulant behaviour both in their public and private interactions. Even their speeches on some occasions lack basic decorum. They revel in making only disparaging comments and launching tasteless personal attacks. But in a state like Odisha, discourteous and ill-behaved persons filled with utter arrogance don’t earn much public respect. When people evaluate politicians aiming for high constitutional positions, they compare how they behave, their public utterances, the words they use, whether they can be role models for the youngsters and so on.
We are also witnessing face-offs between State and Central leaders on various schemes. Basically, they are engaged in a fierce game of one-upmanship. We have seen the war of words over the health coverage schemes (BSKY Vs Ayushman Bharat). Now, KALIA scheme has been pitted against PM-KISAN. Direct cash transfers to the farmers may prove to be a gamechanger in Odisha as KALIA scheme has been lauded across the country.
Irrespective of the parties in power in New Delhi, the blistering debate over who funds the Re1/kg rice in Odisha has never ceased. During the UPA Government, the slugfest began and it continues during the NDA years too. The impact of such debates over Re 1/kg rice on 2014 polls was non-existent and it remains to be seen how it impacts 2019 polls.
In 2014, the BJP in Odisha could not take advantage of the Modi storm which pulverised the Congress across the country. In 2019, if they miss the bus again, they have themselves to blame as the Central party left no stones unturned to assist the State unit and its leaders.
Meanwhile, the Congress campaign is gathering momentum in Odisha and it can add the X-factor in the 2019 polls to turn most predictions topsy-turvy.