Naveen Pulls Away From Rivals

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Elections are in the air. Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, who believes in being one up on his rivals, has already swung into the campaign mode. He is setting a scorching pace which is rivals would find hard to match. He, thus, has a distinct advantage over his rivals. From all appearances he is in a win win situation.

Early bird catches the worm. Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, who seems to firmly believe in this dictum, has swung into the campaign mode and already pulled ahead of his rivals. The BJP and Congress appear to be far behind him.

Congress, the main opposition party, has been jolted by the resignations of two MLAs—Naba Kishore Das and Jogesh Singh, both resourceful leaders known for their organisational abilities. Das was also the working president of the state party. With rebellion against the leadership taking a serious turn the party was also forced to expel former union minister, Srikant Jena and former Koraput MLA, Krushna Chandra Sagaria. Much to the embarrassment of state party brass all these developments came ahead of AICC president, Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the state.

Das has already joined the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) while Singh is also likely to be inducted though his local BJD workers in Sundergarh are opposed to his entry. If sources are to be believed more Congress leaders could part ways with the party. Hit by factionalism the Congress in Odisha has been on the decline for past sometime now. The All India Congress Committee has also not done its bit to fix the problems of the state unit.

While the Congress is facing a crisis of leadership with one PCC president after another falling prey to the campaign of rebels, its two main rivals, BJD and BJP have been making political gains at its cost. The BJP was the major gainer as was seen during the 2017 panchayat elections when the saffron party worn 297 zila parishad seats. But Congress is far from being on the mend. Former minister, Jaydev Jena had to face a sustained campaign by rebels when he was the PCC president. Equally controversial was the tenure of Prasad Harichandan as the PCC chief even though he tried his best to carry the entire party with him.

The present state leadership is facing the same kind of problems. With factional feuds coming into open party’s Koraput MLA, Krushna Chandra Sagaria quit his assembly seat over a month ago leaving the leadership red-faced.  This was followed an unseemly verbal duel between two top leaders. The crisis in the party, by all indications, is likely to deepen further.

That means Congress is in no position to throw a challenge to Naveen who has already donned the combat gear and trained his guns at the BJP-led Centre. This is because even he realises that decline of the Congress would make the BJP his chief rival in the elections. The BJP is already straining its every nerve to conquer Odisha.

That accounts for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s repeated visits to the state. Even BJP president, Amit Shah has been paying special attention to the state. Modi’s last visit to Bolangir on January 15 was his third to the state in the span of a month.

The Prime Minister, who has strategically toned down his attacks on the state government as part of a deliberate strategy, has been laying foundation stones for projects and inaugurating new ones during each of his visits, sending out the message of development to the people.

The Prime Minister, who had chosen Cuttack to present his report card after completing four years in office last May, may come again. The BJP technically is not even the main opposition party in the state, the honour belonging to the Congress which boasts of 15 MLAs. But BJP leaders are already behaving like the leaders of the main opposition party.

Two factors appear to have boosted the confidence of BJP. For one it had put up a credible show in the last year’s zila parishad elections with the party winning as many as 297 seats, a quantum leap from the 36 seats it had in 2012. Secondly the progressive decline of the Congress has created a vacuum that the BJP seems ready to fill up.

But the saffron party has been unable to build up on its zila parishad gains as evident from its defeat in the Bijepur assembly by-poll in February and more recently in the by-election to Bijatala zilla parishad in Mayurbhanj district. At both these places the BJD was the winner.

The defeat in Bijatala was particularly embarrassing for BJP as the seat  belonged  to  the party  which  had been making tall claims about its hold  on tribal dominated districts like Mayurbhanj. Besides the BJD was able to snatch away the seat despite its local MP, Ramchandra Hansdah, a chit fund scam accused, virtually missing from action during the campaign.

Given this backdrop the target of 120 plus assembly seats set by BJP president, Amit Shah for the state party unit appears rather unrealistic and aimed more at boosting cadre morale ahead of the general elections. Though the party has launched programmed like “ mo booth sabuthu mazboot” ( my booth is the strongest) and Jansampark yatra ( mass contract march) to reach out to voters across the state it still lacks the organisational strength of Naveen Patnaik-led BJD which has over the years turned into an election winning machine.

Equally significant is the fact that BJP has moved away from the core issues like development of western Odisha that had made it a force to reckon with in the state’s western belt which still accounts for eight of its 10 MLAs in the assembly. The party, which had once built up popular movements to highlight the poverty and under-development of western Odisha, an area notorious for droughts and starvation deaths, was seen as compromising on these issues when it shared power in the state with BJD from 2000 to 2009. Despite remaining in power for such a long time the party even failed to ensure fiscal autonomy for the Western Odisha Development Council (WODC), an exclusive body formed to boost infrastructure development in the poverty-ridden western districts.

This would hamstring BJP’s bid to challenge Naveen and stymie its ambition of forming a saffron government in the state. Naveen, from all accounts, still remains the most popular leader of the state and seems set to win a record fifth term in office.

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