Parties Pin Hopes on Turncoats

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This election in Odisha is all about turncoats. They are making hay as the election sun shines. The two major parties—ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and BJP—have them in large numbers. Both have rewarded these political apostates with tickets to contest the ensuing polls.

Party hoppers never had it so good in the state. The exodus of leaders from major parties this time began even before the election schedule was announced by the ECI. What is significant is that poll-time migration began with BJD, the strongest party in the contest. Two former ministers and a sitting MLA bidding good bye to the regional party which has won five back to back elections in the state.

Former ministers Debashish Nayak and Pradeep Panigrahy (the latter had been expelled by the party for alleged anti-people activities) parted ways as they had lost all hopes of landing BJD tickets. Same was the case with Chilika’s sitting MLA Prashant Jagdev who fell from grace after getting embroiled in a case of violence. The case was filed against him after he bashed up a local BJP leader in his area.

This opened the floodgates for defections. The failure of alliance talks between BJD and BJP, which had kept a large number of leaders on both sides on the tenterhooks for weeks together, intensified the process of migration with defections also taking place in the saffron party and the Congress. Congress, which has been out of power in the state since 2000, hopes to improve its performance this time.

However, the phenomenon was most visible in the BJD which in the past had never been so vulnerable to this trend. Prominent among the regional party leaders to have switched loyalties are sitting Cuttack Lok Sabha MP Bhartruhari Mahtab, former Berhampur MP Siddhant Mohapatra, former MLA Akash Das Nayak (both Siddhant and Akash are known faces in the Odia cine industry), sitting Jaydev MLA Arabinda Dhali and former MLA Priyadarshi Mishra. They all joined the BJP and have been rewarded with party tickets to contest the elections.

While BJP has fielded Mahtab from the Cuttack Lok Sabha seat, it has made Pradeep Panigrahy its candidate on the Berhampur Lok Sabha seat. Siddhant, Akash Das Nayak and Priyadarshi Mishra have been rewarded with assembly tickets.

The BJD, too, has been welcoming defectors from other parties with open arms and rewarding them with tickets. Of the 20 Lok Sabha candidates that the regional party has announced so far at least five are imports from other parties. They include former state BJP vice-president Bhrugu Buxipatra who, within hours of his joining, was made the candidate from Berhampur Lok Sabha seat which will now witness the battle of turncoats.

Similarly, the Naveen Patnaik-led party has fielded Surendra Singh Bhoi, former minister and a senior Congress leader from western Odisha from the prestigious Bolangir Lok Sabha seat. It has rewarded former Congress MLA Anshuman Mohanty with a ticket to contest the coastal Lok Sabha seat of Kendrapara. Anshuman is the son of former minister Nalini Mohanty who was one of the founder members of BJD and once extremely close to Patnaik. However, they fell out after corruption charges were levelled against Mohanty who quit the BJD to join Congress. Anshuman will be taking on BJP stalwart Baijayant Jay Panda in Kendrapara.

Among the other turncoats nominated by Patnaik for the Lok Sabha elections are Parineeta Mishra (Bargarh), Manmath Routray (Bhubaneswar), Pradeep Majhi (Nabarangpur) and Dhanurjay Sidhu (Keonjhar). Parineeta was declared the ruling party’s candidate from Bargarh within hours of her husband Sushant Mishra, a BJP stalwart, joining the BJD. The regional party has, thus, killed two birds with one stone. While it has poached a key BJP leader in the form of Sushant, it has also taken the credit for taking a decisive step towards providing representation to women in the elections by fielding his wife from Bargarh.

Patnaik has fielded Pradeep Majhi, a former Congress MP, as the BJD’s Nabarangpur Lok Sabha candidate. Mahji had got elected from the constituency on the Congress ticket in 2009. He had joined the ruling BJD ahead of 2022 panchayat polls as he did not see any future in the Congress.

The BJD has replaced its sitting MP from Keonjhar Chandrani Murmu with former Congress MLA from Champua Dhanurjaya Sidu this time. In 2019, Sidu had contested the Telkoi assembly seat on a BJP ticket and lost to BJD’s Premananda Nayak. He then switched over to the BJD ahead of the 2022 panchayat polls.

Manmath Routray, a former pilot and son of Congress veteran Suresh Kumar Routray, was widely expected to contest the ensuing elections as the candidate of his father’s party. However, taking everyone by surprise he joined the BJD and was given the party ticket to contest the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat where he finds himself pitted against BJP’s sitting MP, bureaucrat-turned-politician Aparajita Sarangi.

The trend has surprised political observers, some of whom feel that BJP has been more than willing to accommodate them because it has been facing a crisis of prominent faces to be fielded as candidates. But even they are baffled by the scale of defections from the BJD and the regional party’s acceptance of deserters from other parties. According to most of them in the case of BJD the only plausible explanation could be the fear of anti-incumbency creeping in after 24 years of uninterrupted rule. This could also be the reason behind some important leaders leaving the party.

It is, however, an unedifying trend which many consider to be detrimental for the health of Odisha’s polity. Keen Odisha watchers would like people to reject party hoppers irrespective of which party they join. The entry of turncoats has also triggered resentment among BJD and BJP cadres in some areas. Recently BJD workers in Kendrapara assembly segment protested against the induction of former Congress MLA Ganeswar Behera into the party. They held a demonstration displaying placards that read “imported leaders go back.”

A senior party leader agreed that such moves can engender resentment both among workers and leaders. According to him such decisions are always taken by the top party leaders who lay more emphasis on the winnability factor. However, when the claims of leaders who worked for five years to consolidate the party’s base in different constituencies are ignored it is certain to create a backlash.

However, chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s close aide and BJD leader VK Pandian has appealed to the people to vote for the Conch symbol of the regional party instead of particular candidates. “Please do not see who is the candidate. The chief minister is contesting in all the 147 assembly seats and 21 Lok Sabha,” he is reported to have urged the people at a meeting. Whether or not people pay heed to him will be known once the results are out.

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