In 2014, BJD had won 20 out of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state with BJP managing to get only 1. This time too BJD is keen on repeating the feat but the BJP is equally determined to make lotus bloom in Odisha. Skirmishes between the two sides began much before the elections were announced and the battle is getting fiercer now. Odisha witnessed a high voltage poll battle. It is primarily a battle between Prime Minister, Narendera Modi and chief minister, Naveen Patnaik.
In Odisha, which witnessed a high voltage poll battle, it was primarily a battle between Prime Minister, Narendera Modi and chief minister, Naveen Patnaik. It was a clash between their public personas.
The two leaders were ubiquitous in the posters and banners of their respective parties—BJP and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and also launched attacks at each other. Compared to them the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi was much less visible in campaign.
Even in the countryside people discussed the prospects of a clash between Modi and Patnaik with relish. Rahul was generally kept out of the political discourse.
In 2014 Patnaik, the chief minister of the state for the last 19 years and also the president of BJD, a regional outfit named after his late father, Biju Patnaik, had effectively stopped the Modi wave on the shores of Odisha. His BJD had then won 20 out of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state with BJP managing to get only 1. Congress had been blanked out.
Patnaik is keen on repeating the feat but the BJP is equally determined to make lotus bloom in Odisha this time. Skirmishes between the two sides began much before the elections were announced and the battle is getting fiercer now. While BJD accuses the Modi-led Centre of deliberately neglecting the state and not meeting its demand for special category status that would make it eligible for the bulk of central financial aid in the form of non-returnable grants, the BJP has called the chief minister a liar and says he is deliberately not cooperating with the Centre.
Patnaik, in fact, has gone a step further and demanded fiscal autonomy for the state. “If the Centre cannot help us, let is grant us fiscal autonomy. Then we will manage our affairs with our money,” says BJD secretary, Bijay Nayak justifying the demand.
Odisha and the Modi-led Centre have been at loggerheads over many other issues. The Prime Minister during his recent visits to the state criticized the state for not adopting the Centre’s Ayushman Bharat, a comprehensive health scheme, and instead pitting its own Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana (BSKY) against it. While BJD leaders argue that BSKY is a much better scheme with a wider reach, BJP leaders like Padampur MLA, Pradeep Purohit argue that Odisha government is deliberately ignoring the central scheme. “But this will ultimately harm the people of the state,” he says.
Naveen Patnaik government, which had come out with its own Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) scheme for the farmers, covering even sharecroppers and landless agriculture labourers, had also been reluctant to cooperate with the Centre in the implementation of PM Kisan Yojana and agreed to share the list of beneficiaries with the Centre after a lot of persuasion.
This growing rift between the state and the Centre dominated the elections with BJD linking it with the state’s pride. “Naveen’s father, late Biju Patnaik had fought with the Centre for the pride of the Odias and now our chief minister is following in the footsteps of his father. People are going to back him yet again”, says BJD secretary, Bijay Nayak.
Then there are region specific issues. In the five western Odisha constituencies – Kalahandi, Bolangir, Bargarh, Sambalpur and Sundergarh – frequently visited by droughts farmer suicides remain a major issue. By government’s own admission the state witnessed as many as 227 cases of farmer suicides between 2013 and 2018 with most of these cases being reported from the western belt where irrigation still remains a problem with major irrigation schemes few and far between.
Apart from the Upper Indravati project which irrigates part of Kalahandi there are no major irrigation schemes in this region. With the Rs.1340 crore Gangadhar Meher lift irrigation project in Bargarh district yet to become fully functional the farmers remain largely dependent on rains for farming.
To make things worse the flow of water into the Hirakud dam on Mahanadi, state’s largest river that irrigates as many as 15 districts including Sambalpur, has been badly affected by construction of dams and barrages in the upper reaches of the rivers by Chhatisgarh government. The dispute over Mahanadi water sharing between the two states is now before a tribunal but the issue is going to dominate the elections.
Now that there is a Congress government in Chhatisgarh party leaders in Odisha are finding themselves in an awkward position over the issue. “The problem was created when a BJP government was in power in Chhatisgarh. Our government will try to address the issue but will take time. Besides Odisha government woke up very late,” says former Congress MLA, Dr. Lalatendu Mohapatra.
Mahanadi dispute will also be an election issue in most of the nine coastal Look Sabha constituencies of the state with focus on Cuttack which is considered the gateway to coastal belt.
Caste, fortunately, has never been a factor in Odisha elections but scheduled tribes, which constitute a sizeable chunk of voters in the Maoist-dominated constituencies like Kandhmal and Koraput, may express their anger against the government in certain areas where poor developmental infrastructure including road connectivity has not only made life difficult for them but also exposed them to violence by the ultras. The Congress, with its traditional base among these tribes, is likely to gain from their resentment.
But by and large it is going to be a prestige battle between Naveen Patnaik’s BJD and Modi’s BJP, a clash as much of personalities as of their developmental agendas. Modi, compared to last time, has gained in terms of popularity in the wake of Balakote airstrike but moves like demonetization and GST have not been appreciated by common people. “Overall it is still advantage Naveen Patnaik both in terms of issues and popularity,” said political analyst, Prof. Anand Mishra.