Wake Up Call For Odisha BJP

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A number of factors are responsible for BJP’s poor performance in the recently held rural and urban polls in the state. It has been an embarrassing defeat considering that the party is trying to project itself as an alternative to the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal.  The party must learn from its mistakes and take corrective measures.

The embarrassing defeat of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recently held panchayat and urban body elections has hit its preparations for the general elections of 2024. The party’s plans of posing a credible challenge to the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in 2024 have received a major setback.

The embarrassment for the BJP has been huge considering that it had performed exceedingly well in the panchayat elections of 2017 by winning 297 zila parishad seats. This time it could manage to win only 42 ZP seats. Congress came third. The BJD formed zila parishads in all the 30 districts of the state.

Though BJP did slightly better in the ULB polls, its performance was far from satisfactory. With the party defeated comprehensively its leaders were left struggling to explain the debacle. The usual excuse of the ruling party using money and official machinery failed to find any takers.

So what went wrong with the BJP in these elections which were seen as kind of a dress rehearsal for the final battle in 2024? Was the party under-prepared or was it the complacency factor that did it in. Sources within the state BJP attribute the serious debacle of the party in the local elections to lackluster leadership and lack of preparedness at the ground level. In sharp contrast to the BJD which, having learnt its lessons from 2017 panchayat polls, has strengthened its organization right up to the booth level BJP’s organization was less than prepared for the elections at block, panchayat and booth levels.

One easy excuse that most BJP leaders have been touting to explain the defeat in the rural polls is the pre-occupation of their senior leader and union education minister, Dharmendra Pradhan in the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. True he had been given charge of overseeing the party’s campaign in India’s most populous state and could not have managed much time for electioneering in his home state but that was not the case with other leaders of BJP? The question to be asked is whether the BJP in Odisha is over-dependent on Pradhan who is seen as its face in the state? If true, this can be dangerous for the party.

There are other senior leaders in the state BJP who could easily have led the party’s campaign in the local elections considering their importance for the party. Leaders like former union minister Jual Oram could have led from the front. Besides, there is a whole new crop of younger leaders who are capable of doing hard work for the success of the party. Perhaps the leadership failed to approach these elections in an organized manner.

The state BJP leadership, too, has its limitations which have been exposed time and again during elections. The organizational weakness of the party was, for example, badly exposed in 2009 when it contested the state assembly elections on its own following the break-up of its alliance with the Biju Janata Dal. The party, which had ruled the state in tandem with the BJD for more than eight years, faced a shameful defeat in those elections as it could manage to win just six assembly seats. The results made it clear that during the alliance years it was practically piggy-riding the BJP.

The absence of mass support for the party in the state was also evident in 2014 elections when it could win just 10 assembly seats, only marginally better than its 2009 tally. The 2019 election was a turning point for BJP in Odisha in the sense that it not only bagged 23 assembly seats and emerged as the main opposition party in the state but also claimed eight Lok Sabha seats including all the five seats located in western Odisha which is generally considered to be its stronghold.

But BJP’s assembly tally of 23 seats in 2019 was far less than the target of 120 Plus seats given to the state unit by former party boss and union home minister Amit Shah. Even if one assumes that the target set by Shah was too ambitious and meant more to boost the morale of party cadre, BJP leadership must have expected to reach the 50 seat mark. But it fell far short of that. The fact is that whatever gains the BJP made in the 2019 assembly polls were on account of a sharp erosion in Congress’s vote bank in the state. Congress voters, who were frustrated with the repeated failure of their own party in elections but remained opposed to the BJD, transferred their votes to the BJP.

While this in no way impacted the core vote-bank of BJD, the inherent danger for the BJP in this was that its vote percentage got directly linked with the downfall of Congress. The implication, thus, was that any resurgence of the Congress would result in proportionate decline in BJP’s electoral fortunes which is not a happy situation to be in for the party.

Thus, the main takeaway for the BJP from panchayat and local urban body elections in the state is that it needs to strengthen its organization right upto the grassroots levels with a dedicated cadre base. There is also an urgent need for the party leadership to take up pro-people issues and build popular movements around them. Some of its leaders did that successfully on the issue of farmers in parts of western Odisha but the party could not turn it into a statewide movement.

There are other problems, too, plaguing the party in the state. But organizational weakness and inability of its leaders to win popular support by taking up people’s causes are the ones that need to be addressed immediately. With the next general elections only two years away, there is little time left for the BJP leadership to take corrective measures. If it refuses to learn from the recent electoral debacles it will be doing so at its own cost.

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