Stage Set For An Exciting Battle in Odisha



The two main rivals vying for the top honours have announced their candidates for the seats that matter most in the state. Some of these seats such as Sambalpur, Cuttack, Puri and Bhubaneswar seem set for high-voltage contests. Pre-poll defections are also taking place both in BJP and Biju Janata Dal. Congress, the third major player, has also suffered a few jolts. By all indications it is going to be a riveting battle.

There are ample signs that this election in Odisha is going to be different. Following the failure of alliance talks with the BJP, the main opposition party, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) seems caught in a churn, something it had never experienced before. Anumber of high-profile leaders have left the party and joined the saffron bandwagon. The BJP, which has also suffered a few jolts, has been welcoming the turncoats with open arms.

Among the heavyweights who left BJD to enter the saffron fold are six-time Cuttack MP Bhartruhari Mahtab whom the BJP has fielded as its candidate from Cuttack and former MLA Pradeep Panigrahi whom will contest the prestigious Berhampur seat on BJP ticket. Sitting BJD MLAs Prashant Jagdev and Premanand Nayak have also jumped on to the saffron bandwagon and so has former MLA and minister Debashish Nayak.

Upbeat over these high-profile acquisitions the BJP, too, has suffered a few jolts. While sitting MLA from Nilagiri Sukant Nayak resigned from the party, BJP Cuttack district president Prakash Behera has also quit leaving a section of party leaders in a state of shock. Nayak had made his entry into politics with BJD and won his first Assembly election from Nilgiri in 2014. In 2019, he switched to BJP and retained the seat. Sources said Nayak is likely to return to BJD and may again be fielded from the same constituency.

All these developments have come in the wake of collapse of alliance talks which began soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the state on March 5. The talks gained momentum only to hit a severe roadblock when both sides refused to budge from their respective stands on the issue of seat sharing. Common party workers on both sides were, however, happy with the breakdown of negotiations. Many opined that the talks were doomed right from the beginning as they would have changed the very character of state politics in which BJD and BJP are main rivals. Having fought each other for 15 long years they looked like unlikely allies.

Now both sides have announced their candidates for the majority of Lok Sabha seats. The BJD has also declared its candidates for quite a few assembly seats. By all accounts it is going to be a high voltage contest with focus on seats like Sambalpur, Bhubaneswar and Puri. The Sambalpur Lok Sabha constituency in Odisha is set to witness a riveting contest with Biju Janata Dal (BJD) pitting its organisational secretary and sitting Jajpur MLA, Pranab Prakash Das against Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who is the BJP’s pick for the seat.

The nomination of Das, who is Bobby to friends and follower, was not unexpected as he had been appointed the district observer for the region in March last year. According to BJD insiders then had said his appointment got the seal of chief minister as the party expected the BJP to field Pradhan from Sambalpur and it wanted a strong leader to be pitted against him.

Bobby is the de facto number two in the BJD and is seen as a close aide of Patnaik’s trusted aide V K Pandian. Even as many see Bobby as an unconventional choice for the seat in western Odisha considering his identity as a coastal leader his party is confident that he is the best possible candidate to take on the union minister.

In 2019, the BJD had won four of the seven Assembly seats falling under the Sambalpur seat, which is seen as a BJP stronghold, while the BJP had won the remaining three. The seat had witnessed a tough fight in the last Lok Sabha polls with the BJP candidate Nitesh Ganga Deb defeating the BJD’s Nilini Pradhan by just over 7,000 votes. Pradhan, who last contested the Assembly elections from the Pallahara seat in 2009 and lost, is returning to electoral politics after a 15-year gap. One of the reasons for him choosing the seat could be that it is dominated by members of the OBC farming community to which he belongs.

While BJD has fielded a political greenhorn Manmath Routray, the younger son of six-time Congress MLA Suresh Routray and a former commercial pilot as its candidate from the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat to take on BJP’s sitting MP Aparajita Sarangi, former Mumbai police commissioner Arup Patnaik has replaced Pinaki Mishra as the regional party’s choice for the Puri seat from where BJP has once again decided to field its national spokesperson Sambit Patra. In 2019 Arup had lost the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat to BJP’s Aparajita Sarangi.

Cuttack is another key Lok Sabha seat for both the parties and will see six-time MP Bhartruhari Mahtab who joined the BJP recently, taking on BJD’s Santrupt Misra, the former HR head of Aditya Birla Group. The tribal-dominated Sundergarh seat will once again witness battle between sitting BJP MP Juam Oram   and Hockey India president and former Indian hockey team captain Dilip Tirkey.

Sitting MPs of Jagatsinghpur, Kandhamal and Jajpur have been renominated while Abinash Samal, a young doctor who joined the party recently, has been nominated from Dhenkanal. For the Assembly seats, the ruling party has retained most of its sitting MLAs barring a few, where it has nominated close relatives of sitting legislators or swapped candidates. Chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who contested from Bijepur apart from his traditional seat of Hinjili in the 2019 Assembly polls, has been named only from his home turf this time.

Congress, the third major player in state politics, has delayed the announcement of its candidates as it was waiting for BJP and BJD to come out with their list of candidates. The Grand Old party, however, has been in the thick of candidate selection process. However, signs of financial stress are clearly visible in the party which has asked ticket aspirants to deposit a cheque for Rs.50,000 with the party which, in the case of their names being finalized, would be used for providing them campaign materials. Sources said it would be like a security deposit which will be returned to aspirants who don’t get tickets eventually.

The decision to seek cheques for Rs.50,000 each from aspirants was taken at the party meeting held at Puri to vet the applications of ticket aspirants. Sources said some of the aspirants have already deposited the money but the move has triggered resentment among a section of the leaders who feel this would not only put unnecessary financial burden on candidates but also project a negative image of the party at the time of elections.

However, a section of the leadership has strongly defended the move saying it will not help create a favorable atmosphere for the party but also keep non-serious candidates out of contention.