Battle Lines Drawn in Bijepur

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The Bijepur assembly by-poll is being seen as a virtual semi final before the next general elections. Though all three major parties are vying for the honours here, the seat is likely to witness a keen contest between ruling BJD and BJP. The stage for the big battle has been set with BJD rebel, Ashok Panigrahy, joining the saffron party

Battle lines have been clearly drawn in Bijepur with the by-poll in this western Odisha constituency being hyped as the virtual semi final before the next general election. The stage was set with BJP’s ‘Mishran Parva’ (joining festival) at Barpali that saw former BJD leader, Ashok Panigrahy walking into the saffron fold amidst a big show of strength by the party.

Discontent within the Bargarh district unit of BJP over Panigrahy’s joining notwithstanding it is widely believed that the bearded leader, who won the Bijepur seat in 2000 on a BJD ticket, would be the saffron candidate in this by-election. The seat fell vacant in August following the death of  Subal Sahu who had won from the constituency on a Congress ticket in 2014.

Panigrahy, who claims  to have joined the party without any conditions, said, “ I consulted by supporters and then took the decision. They are as unhappy as I am at the way things are moving in the BJD.” Top BJP leaders including state president, Basant Panda and legislature party leader, KV Singh Deo were present on the occasion.

The leader had been spewing venom against chief minister, Naveen Patnaik since Subal Sahu’s family members including his wife, Rita Sahu and son Sumit joined the BJD on September 23 at Naveen Nivas. Last week chief minister also announced that Rita would be BJD’s official candidate for the Bijepur by-poll.

“There is resentment even within BJD over the joining of Rita Sahu and other members of Subal Sahu’s family. It is after much thought that I decided to join the BJP. My followers stand solidly behind me,” said Panigrahy who had recently stirred a controversy by alleging that he had contested the 2014 election from Bijepur as an independent with the tacit support of chief minister, Naveen Patnaik who wanted BJD’s official candidate, Prasanna Acharya, presently a Rajya Sabha member, to lose. The chief minister, however, dismissed the allegation as baseless.

Though Panigrahy said he was joining the BJP without any conditions it seems almost certain that the party would pit him against Rita Sahu in the constituency. His candidature, however, is likely to trigger resentment within BJP leaders in Bargarh. Senior party leader from the area, Jaynarayan Sahu made his displeasure at the move clear saying that local leaders would find it hard to accept Panigrahy who had so far been fighting against them.

However, BJP spokesperson, Pruthviraj Harichandan asserted in Bhubaneswar that the fears about a revolt within the Bargarh unit of the party at the joining of Panigrahy were unfounded. “There is no resentment and there will be no resistance to his joining,” averred Harichandan.

On the other hand, cooperation minister and senior BJD leader, Surya Narayan Patro indicated that switching of loyalties by Panigrahy was unlikely to have any major impact on the outcome of the by-poll in Bijepur. “  He had contested the last election as an independent and got around 10,000 votes. I don’t think he is going to make any impact,” said the minister.

Meanwhile the war of words between ruling BJD and rival BJP has intensified ahead of Bijepur assembly by-poll which has become a prestige issue for both the parties. The first salvo was fired by agriculture minister, Damodar Rout who, referring to the resentment within a section of  BJP over the move to induct former BJD MLA, Ashok Panigrahy into the party, said that the saffron party would find it hard to resolve its internal differences.

“Any discontent within our party (BJD) can be resolved easily but the case with BJP is different. The party has been weak from the beginning and the entry of an outsider (Panigrahy) would further stoke dissension within it,” said Rout who remains confident about BJD winning the Bijepur seat.

To prove his point that BJP was a divided house in the state Rout, one of the most vocal BJD leaders, also referred to  union tribal affairs minister, Jual Oram’s recent statement  that his party had as many as five chief ministerial candidates. Rout’s diatribe, however, drew an immediate retort from Oram who advised the agriculture minister to take care of his own party instead of trying to interfere in the affairs of others.

“Dama Babu is in the habit of talking a bit too much. He would better focus on his own party affairs instead of worrying about us. We are capable of taking care of ourselves. And who does he think he is? An astrologer?” asked Oram tauntingly.

Though the Election Commission is yet to announce the dates for Bijepur by-poll preparations by major political parties for the seat located in the Bargarh district of western Odisha are in full swing. Politics over the seat heated up after the wife and son of former Congress MLA, Subal Sahu, whose death has necessitated the bye-election, joined ruling BJD on September 23 at Naveen Nivas in the presence of chief minister, Naveen Patnaik.

Though a section of BJD leaders from Bargarh had reservations about Sahu’s wife, Rita and her son, Sumit joining the party, which they had fought against in the past, the chief minister was quick to announce Rita’s candidature for the seat. This put paid to the hopes of BJD rebel, Ashok Panigrahy who had contested the 2014 election from Bijepur as an independent.

Panigrahy, who was being assiduously wooed by the BJP which was on the look out for a potential candidate for the seat, sought to embarrass the chief minister accusing him of secretly backing his candidature from Bijepur in the last election as an independent. Naveen, however, categorically rejected the allegation. This led to Panigrahy’s announcement about joining the BJP. Battle lines have, thus, been clearly drawn between BJD and BJP in Bijepur which seems set to witness a keen duel between these parties with Congress unlikely to make much of an impact.

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