Bijepur by-poll was an acid test for the three major parties. While BJD has passed the test with flying colours, the BJP is yet to recover from the shock of defeat and the Congress is lying in tatters. The verdict has proved yet against that chief minister, Naveen Patnaik remains invincible in Odisha.
Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik has proved his electoral invincibility again with ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate from Bijepur winning the assembly seat with a thumping margin of nearly 42,000 votes.
While BJD candidate, Rita Sahu polled 1,02,871 votes, her BJP rival Ashok Panigrahi got only 60,938 votes while Congress’s Pranay Sahu with 10,274 votes had to face the humiliation of losing his deposit though his party had won the seat thrice in a row since 2004.
The bye-election was a prestige issue for the three major parties, especially the BJP and BJD which are set to clash for the top honours in 2019; unless the NDA government decides to advance the general elections. Though state BJP leaders sought to put up a brave face seeking solace in the fact that the party’s votes in Bijepur had doubled compared to 2014 assembly elections when it had polled 30,000 votes there was no denying the disappointment at the loss.
The defeat, coming in the backdrop of BJP president, Amit Shah’s much-hyped Mission 120 for Odisha which has 147 assembly seats, is bound to hurt the party as it would demoralize party cadres preparing for the general elections. The party, which had mounted a high-voltage and often bitter campaign against chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, was also hopeful of doing well as it had got around 90,000 votes in Bijepur in the last panchayat elections.
However, its calculations appear to have gone completely wrong. A senior BJP leader said that the lessons from Bijepur would stand the party in good stead in 2019 but nevertheless admitted that the result had been a disappointment.
What seems to have worked against the BJP were the twin incidents of shoe hurling at chief minister, Naveen Patnaik while he was campaigning in the constituency on February 20 and attack on Subrat Singh, brother of minister of state for labour, Sushant Singh and his three aides at Banabira three days later. The driver of Subrat was killed in the incident.
The violence that triggered a war of words between BJP and BJD queered the pitch for the saffron party with popular anger against it rising. Chief minister, Naveen Patnaik hinted at this in his tweet that said, “Humbled by love & trust of the people of #Bijepur for giving@bjd_Odisha a massive victory. BJD lives in the hearts of the people of #Odisha. Our people are peace loving and have rejected the politics of hatred and violence.”
Former minister, Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak, who campaigned extensively in Bijepur, said the huge margin of victory reflected people’s faith in Naveen’s leadership and the good work of his party. “People have rejected the politics of hatred. They know that our chief minister believes in hard work,” said Nayak.
The result has come as a big blow to the faction-ridden state Congress with Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president, Prasad Harichandan, whose resignation the dissidents were demanding, putting in his papers.
A senior Congress leader said the party had paid the price for the inordinate delay in candidate selection which affected its campaign. “We campaigned for a very short period compared to BJP and BJD. We should all own up responsibility for the debacle,” he said.
That Bijepur by-poll, billed as the biggest battle before the general elections, was a prestige issue for the state’s three major parties was obvious from the high voltage and the often acrimonious campaign.
Seen as the dress-rehearsal for 2019, the bye-election was the last opportunity for the major parties to test their respective strengths before staking their claim for the throne of Odisha. No wonder BJD and BJP, the top contenders, engaged in long bouts of recriminations during the campaign.
Leading the BJD campaign was chief minister, Naveen Patnaik himself. He moved around the constituency with party candidate, Rita Sahu, the widow of former Congress MLA, Subal Sahu, in tow evoking the sympathy of the voters. Unfazed by the shoe throwing incident at one of his public meetings he also sought votes on the development plank.
Leading the BJP charge union minister for petroleum and natural gas Dharmendra Pradhan accused minister of state for labour, Sushant Singh, the chief minister’s point man in Bijepur, of unleashing a reign of terror in the constituency. He also pointed fingers at some senior bureaucrats alleging that they were trying to help the ruling party.
While recrimination, especially between BJP and BJD, was the dominant feature of the high decibel campaign in Bijepur, both the parties also sought to dazzle the voters by deploying cine stars – who held road shows and public meetings. If the BJD threw into the campaign actors-turned-politicians, Anubhav Mohanty, Siddhant Mohapatra and Akash Das Nayak well known Odia actors, Mahashweta, Aparajita, Mihir and Sritam Das added to the star power of BJP.
While the BJP’s campaign saw several union ministers including Smriti Irani, Ram Kripal Yadav, Giriraj Singh, Dharmendra Pradhan and Jual Oram – the last two hailing from Odisha -address public meetings in the constituency the ruling party’s star attraction was chief minister, Naveen Patnaik who, ably assisted by younger leaders like Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak, played both development and the sympathy cards as he held road shows and addressed meetings with party candidate, Rita Sahu for company.
Within hours of campaign drawing to an end, tension reached a flashpoint in Bijepur with minister of state for labour, Sushant Singh’s brother, Subrat Singh and three of his aides sustaining grievous injuries in an attack.
While police, who refrained from taking names, said members of one political group had attacked another, the incident triggered an immediate blame game with ruling BJD alleging that there was a conspiracy by BJP to disrupt the Bijepur by-poll.
Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik condemned the attack saying there was no place for violence in democracy. “The people of Odisha are peace loving. I strongly condemn this cowardly act,” said Naveen even as a BJD delegation led by Rajya Sabha member, Prasanna Acharya submitted a memorandum to Bargarh collector.
The constituency with around 2.21 lakh voters had 155 of its 281 polling booths marked “critical.” A day before polling CRPF and BSF along with the state police had conducted flag marches in some of the sensitive areas.
Polling, though, was, by and large, incident free, the only major aberration being the removal of a presiding officer midway through voting for trying to influence people to cast their ballots in favour of a particular party. Chief electoral officer, Surendra Kumar said that presiding officer of booth no-193, Bahadur Sahu, a teacher of Thikarpalli Upper Primary school, was removed after preliminary inquiry found him asking voters to favour a particular candidate. Sahu was also placed under suspension.
The keen interest of voters in the by-poll was obvious from the fact that the constituency recorded 82 percent polling. With his party’s massive victory in Bijepur chief minister, Naveen Patnaik has once again proved that there is no alternative to him in Odisha. The opposition will need to re-work its strategy against him in 2019.