Battle Begins, Generals Fire First Salvos

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This is a prestige battle for the main rivals—BJD and BJP, both of which have too much at stake. While for BJD the outcome would decide if Naveen Patnaik can become chief minister of the state for the sixth time in a row the BJP is keen to wrest power from its erstwhile ally. This is a battle in which no quarter would be given.

The battle for Odisha has begun in earnest with main rivals—BJP and BJD—launching their campaigns in style. While chief minister and BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik braved blistering heat as he addressed his first public meeting in Hinjili, his traditional seat, calling upon people to vote for making Odisha the number one state in the country, union home minister Amit Shah began his party’s campaign from Sonepur in western Odisha.

Their campaign style and strategies stood in sharp contrast to each other. Patnaik sought to strike a positive note seeking votes on performance, to make Odisha rise. In contrast, Shah called upon people to throw out the Naveen government which, he alleged, was corrupt and was trying to hijack central schemes. Congress’s campaign has been rather low key and nothing much to write about.

Both BJD and BJP know that this election is a duel between them. And it is going to be a fierce duel following the breakdown of their alliance talks. The former allies, who made a failed bid to revive their friendship, are facing each other as sworn enemies. Both have high hopes from this election and both face problems galore, the most formidable being the problem of potential rebels following the denial of tickets to a number of leaders who contested last time.

Even before the elections were announced disgruntled leaders on both sides had begun jumping ship. These included some so-called BJD heavyweights who had become unsure of landing party tickets. Later, the party denied tickets to some senior MLAs like Samir Ranjan Dash in Nimapara and Amar Satpathy in Badchana. The supporters of both these leaders look angry and despite efforts by the party leadership to assuage their feelings such disgruntled elements could end up harming the prospects of BJD’s official candidates.

A similar situation also exists in the BJP which has been welcoming defectors from the BJD with open arms and rewarding them with party tickets even at the cost of angering its own loyal leaders. In fact, leaders like Bhrugu Buxipatra, who was state BJP vice-president and now contesting the Berhampur Lok Sabha as the BJD candidate, switched sides out of sheer desperation and disillusionment when they were denied tickets.

Such leaders exist on both sides. As their campaign progresses there could be trouble for both the parties. But their respective leaderships must be ready with their firefighting plans. As Shah launched BJP’s campaign from Sonepur he appeared completely unfazed by such developments and exuded confidence. Calling upon people to throw out the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government in the state and give a BJP a chance to serve them he said Odisha could develop only if it had a ” double engine” government with BJP ruling both at the Centre and the state. ” Aaap 20 kamal bhejiye tabhi hum 400 paar karenge (send 20 BJP MPs from the state. Only then can we cross the figure of 400 Lok Sabha MPs),” the Home Minister told the gathering in the western Odisha town.

This was Shah’s first public meeting in the state since the collapse of BJP-BJD alliance talks. The Home Minister had earlier said that alliance talks broke because his party workers were against it. Shah urged the people to dethrone Patnaik government which has been ruling the state uninterrupted for the last 24 years. “Dethrone the Naven Patnaik government and bring BJP to power in Odisha. I assure you if we have power no one will have to go out of the state in search of jobs,” he said in an obvious reference to seasonal migration of labour from western Odisha districts in search of work. Western Odisha, which has been the traditional stronghold of BJP, is notorious for migration of labour to other states.

Though Shah refrained from directly attacking the chief minister he made it amply clear that the state had not made desirable progress under the BJD government.  “You have given 25 years to the Naveen Patnaik government. Now give the BJP a chance for five years. We will make the state number one in the country with our double engine government,” he said adding ” Odisha’s language, culture and pride can thrive only if there is a BJP government in the state.”

Amit Shah also hinted about the officer raj continuing in the state. He said with massive corruption taking place at every level the state has been deprived of development. The union minister also came down heavily on the Naveen government for hijacking the central programmes.

“Modi government is giving 5 kg rice to the poor, but the Naveen government is putting its stamp on it and taking credit. Your state has also not implemented the Centre’s Ayushman Yojana,” he said and hit out at the state government for trying to take credit for trying to take credit from the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Shah also spoke at length about the Modi government’s contribution towards the development of Odisha and compared it with the work done by the preceding Congress governments.

The party decided to launch its campaign from Sonepur in western Odisha as the region is considered to be the stronghold of BJP. All the five Lok Sabha seats from the area were won by the saffron party in 2019. It is important to mention that chief minister Naveen Patnaik is also contesting from the Kantabanji seat in the western belt along with his traditional Hinjili seat to counter the influence of BJP in the region.

On the other hand, Patnaik kicked off his party’s campaign from his home turf Hinjili with a call for making Odisha the number one state in 2036 when the state will celebrate the centenary of its formation.

With a clear message that development is the identity of his government, Patnaik pledged to make this decade 2024-2034 the golden period for youths of the state and said that his government will come up with a separate budget for the youth.

Cheered on by the capacity crowd, the 77-year-old leader made a blistering attack on the opposition and tried to expose its game plan, saying no one has ever succeeded by opposing development work. He exuded confidence that the Opposition won’t be successful in blocking Odisha’s development. “The Opposition is politicizing every move of the government- whether its Jagannath Parkirma project, Ekamra project or Maa Samalei project. People are aware of their nature and mean politics and will teach them a lesson in the upcoming twin polls,” he said.

Naveen also gave some insight into why the people of Odisha continue to support him repeatedly since 2000 and listed the number of developmental projects launched by him over the years. These include women empowerment, modernisation of schools and improvement of health services under the Biju Swasthya Kalayan Yojana.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also launched his party’s campaign from Salipur addressing a public meeting where he spoke about the promises that his party was making and is keen on fulfilling if it came to power. He also launched a tirade against the top leaders of BJP and BJD alleging that the two parties were two sides of the same coin.

This, no doubt, is going to be an interesting battle. It may be mentioned that Biju Janata Dal (BJD) led by Naveen Patnaik came to power in the state alliance with BJP in 2000 with the two parties winning 68 seats and 38 seats respectively. In 2004, the BJD won 61 seats and BJP 32. The alliance broke in 2009 and BJD on its strength won 103 but BJP’s seats came down to 6 and Congress emerged second by winning 27 seats.

BJD consolidated its strength further by winning 117 seats in 2014. Congress and BJP had to remain content with 16 and 10 seats respectively. In the 2019 elections, the BJD continued its winning streak grabbing 112 seats followed by BJP’s 23 and Congress’s 9.  The BJP emerged as the main opposition party in the state for the first time. Can BJP further improve its position and emerge victorious to unseat Patnaik? This is the million-dollar question in this election.

As things stand today it seems highly unlikely even though the saffron party is certain to make significant gains in Odisha this time.

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