Who Is Afraid of the Panchayat Test?

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Panchayat poll bugle has been sounded but the opposition, which till recently was blaming the government for delaying the polls, seems reluctant to join the battle. The general feeling is that the major opposition parties are running scared as they are not well prepared and fear losing badly.

Why are the major opposition parties in Odisha demanding the postponement of panchayat elections? Is the demand really born out of their concern for the people’s health as COVID-19 cases are spreading or is it the fear of losing? After all they were the ones who were criticizing the government only a few months ago for deliberately delaying the elections.   The truth is that of the three big parties that would be contesting the polls, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is not only most well prepared but also running high on confidence. Its two rivals – BJP and the Congress – appear to no match either in terms of preparedness or popularity.

The rural polls are important as they are being seen as the semi finals before the final battle in 2024. While the 853 zilla parishad seats will be contested on party symbols, 91,916 wards and 6,794 panchayat seats will be contested on a non-party basis. That BJD is pulling out all the stops to make sure that it scores a sparkling victory. This is evident from the string of pre-election sops announced by chief minister Naveen Patnaik who also happens to be the president of the regional party. Recently Patnaik announced livelihood assistance of Rs. 1000 each for Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana (BSKY) cardholders in the state, the decision apparently having been taken to assist the poor people who were severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The beneficiaries of National Food Security Act (NFSA) and State Food Security Scheme (SFSS) will also get monetary assistance from the government. The move will benefit around 96 lakh families and cost the state exchequer Rs 960 crore. The announcement came within 24 hours of Patnaik promising Rs. 1,444 crore as house repair assistance to the people living mainly in the rural areas of the state. The assistance per family will range from Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 5,000 for beneficiaries of Biju Pucca Ghar (BPGY), Nirman Shramik Pucca Ghar Yojna and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Grameen (PMAY-G).

In a bid to attract women voters Patnaik has also announced sops for the members of women self-help groups (SHGs) being sponsored by the government’s Mission Shakti department. He has laid the foundation stone for the Mission Shakti Bazar in Bhubaneswar through which SHG members can sell their products. The role of these women collectives, which have more than 70 lakh women, has been diversified over the years with government assigning them new responsibilities like cooking and distribution of mid-day meals in schools and collection of monthly drinking water charges from households in cities such as Bhubaneswar. The government is now thinking of employing SHG members as banking correspondents in areas with no banking facilities. Such endeavours have not only ensured economic empowerment of women, especially in the rural areas, but also turned them into faithful voters of the ruling BJD.

Among the other major pre-election moves of the government are the announcements for the launch of Mukhyamantri Vayu Swasthya Seva (Air Health Service) to take health services to the people of remote and backward areas of the state. To begin with the service will be made available to people of four tribal-dominated districts – Malkangiri, Nabarangpur, Kalahandi and Nuapada. If necessary, critical patients will be airlifted to bigger hospitals in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. Before this, Patnaik had announced the establishment of one physiotherapy clinic and a mobile medicare unit for the elderly in every district of the state. These facilities will cater to the health needs of people above 60 years living in rural, isolated and backward areas.

The BJD, thus, appears better prepared than its rivals for the upcoming panchayat battle. However, the sops being offered by the chief minister ahead of the polls have expectedly drawn the ire of both BJP and the Congress. “This is a naked attempt to influence the voters. They have been suddenly reminded of the poor,” said a senior BJP leader. A Congress leader described these sops as part of the chief minister tactics to hoodwink voters. “He always becomes active ahead of polls starts distributing sops. But people will see through his game this time,” he said. The BJD, however, defend the move describing the opposition’s allegations as politically motivated. “He is the most popular chief minister of the country. He has been voted to power repeatedly because people are happy with his work,” said a BJD leader.

The BJD is making special preparations to capture the panchayats and zila parishads this time having drawn some important lessons from the results of the last rural polls held in the state in 2017. In those elections the Naveen Patnaik-led party had emerged at the top bagging 473 out of 853 zila parishad seats at stake. However, its performance had been below par compared to the 651 zila parishad seats it had won in 2012 panchayat polls. This was the result of a tremendous surge in the number of ZP seats won by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which rose from 36 in 2012 to 297 in 2017. The overall zila parishad tally of the Congress had dropped in 2017 to 60 from 126 in 2012. It was pushed to the third place by the BJP which did particularly well in the tribal-dominated western and northern Odisha districts including Mayurbhanj bordering West Bengal. The BJD, according to its senior leaders, is working extra hard this time to correct the mistakes it had made last time. And it is bound to succeed given its level of preparedness and the dedication of its top leadership.

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