With 3 phases of voting over in Odisha, comprising almost 2/3 rd of its Parliamentary and Assembly seats and the 4th phase of voting going on today, for the remaining 6 Parliamentary and 42 Assembly seats the question that is foremost in everyone’s mind is if the State is going to witness a change and if Mr. Naveen Patnaik is going to be voted out.
Mr. Patnaik has loomed over the political horizon of the State for the last 2 decades, it is quite an achievement for someone who joined politics by a quirk of fate after the demise of his father the legendary Biju Patnaik. In fact, he is the only person who has been elected for consecutive four terms as Chief Minister a rare feat in Odisha’s history thereby surpassing even his late father by miles. What makes his achievement rarest of rare is that Odisha was the first State to be carved out on linguistic basis but Mr Patnaik cannot speak Odia.
Being so, not long ago it was futile to ask if Mr Patnaik is going to be the Chief Minister for yet another term but the last few years have seen path-breaking developments in Odisha which have the potential to put a stop to his track record. Mr. Patnaik during his long tenure mastered the art of “politics of doles” which ensured that from birth till death the beneficiaries were covered by one scheme or other. Patnaik devised a potent mix of “politics of doles” with blaming all ills of the State on the central dispensation to capture, successfully, the imagination of the electorate making him invincible.
However, the table seems to be turning against the long-reigning Chief Minister of Odisha. To begin with, anti-incumbency fuelled not only by the 20 years of rule by his party; the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) but also by factors like rising atrocities against Women, farmer suicide and farm distress, Chit fund scam, unemployment, a culture of taking a cut (known as percentage or PC) for Govt. work and the undue influence by a coterie of bureaucrats both in the matter of governance as also in the affairs of the BJD has added to the woes of Mr. Patnaik. Incidences like the one in Kalahandi where Dana Majhi was forced to carry his wife’s body for kilometres for lack of ambulance service and the death of scores of infants due to Japanese encephalitis also dented the well-cultivated image of Patnaik.
What has added to the woes of Mr. Patnaik is the aggressive campaigning launched by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the State soon after the change in dispensation at the centre in the year 2014, led by the young Union Minister Mr. Dharmendra Pradhan, which helped the party to reap rich dividends during the 2017 local body elections, catapulting it to the second position in terms of number of seats and vote share is another dimension which has emerged in Odisha’s political horizon. In the last 5 years the populace of the State has hugely benefited from the central schemes like Ujwala which has seen more than 42 lakhs families being provided with gas connection in addition to the benefits of “Swachh Bharat”, rural electrification etc. making Mr. Narendra Modi a household name, increasingly seen as someone who would help 4.5 Crore Odias to achieve their aspirations. Apart from the central scheme, the initiative of the Central Govt. in celebrating the 200th year of Paika rebellion in the year 2017 at the national level had gone down well with the people of the State. In addition, various projects have been launched in the State which has the potential to make Odisha a hub for a petroleum refinery, ethanol production and one relating to creating the largest strategic oil reserve in Asia. The fact that Odisha has remained central to the BJP’s scheme of “purvodaya” which envisages that the rising eastern part of the country would fuel future growth in terms of economic development has aroused the aspirations of the people of the State to become an active participant in India’s growth story.
While BJP has been successfully implementing its strategy to emerge as a key player in Odisha politics, Mr. Patnaik has been besotted with problems a plenty both within and outside his party. Inside the party, many veterans fell out with him blaming the coterie which has extended its iron grip over it leading to either their expulsion or being sidelined. Outside the party, the State has witnessed gruesome rapes and murders of Women and girl child and in more than one occasion the ruling party leaders have been accused of sheltering the rape accused, sullying the Teflon image of Mr. Patnaik. The rebels within his party have joined the ranks of the BJP adding to its prowess and making it a formidable force. In all this the Congress party which ruled the state till the late 1990’s has been relegated to the third place with a crumbling organization. All these factors made the 2019 election a direct contest between the BJD and the BJP.
Consequently, unlike the elections of 2009 and 2014, the run-up to the 2019 elections in Odisha was totally different. Bogged down by issues of misgovernance and mal-governance, which has in turn fuelled anti-incumbency the Chief Minister resorted to making an announcement of various schemes at the last minute including yet another cash scheme for the farmers named Krushaka Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation”(KALIA), just before elections with the intended beneficiary being small, marginal farmers and landless agricultural households, it was seen as a game changer. But in reality, this scheme may well prove the nemesis of Mr. Patnaik with allegations of widespread corruption in identifying the intending beneficiary resulting in the BJD party members and their family cornering the lion share of the amount released. This has led to widespread discontentment which has the potential to unsettle the projections made by Mr Patnaik.
If the implementation of KALIA remains a sour point sensing that his party would face strong opposition in the districts of Western Odisha, the Chief Minister decided to contest from an assembly segment in the District of Bargarh of that region apart from his traditional seat in Hinjili in the Ganjam District. This was unlike any other election when the Chief Minister was content with being the face of the Party, sure of a victory. Another development that was received with circumspection was the release of a workout video of the Chief Minister to quell the doubts raised about his which had become a talking point in various circles. This is something which Mr. Patnaik had not done so far though rumours about him not being in the best of health have been in circulation for many years.
In contrast, the BJP has led a well thought out and well-managed election campaign with the Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi holding series of public meetings during each phase of the elections and stressing on the need for a “Double Engine” Govt. i.e. a BJP led Govt. both at the Centre and the State has struck a chord amongst the electorates. Notwithstanding the fact that its workers have been at the receiving end leading to the murder of a Mandal President in the politically sensitive District of Khurda, soon after the 2 nd phase of voting, raising question mark about Odisha’s hitherto peaceful political process and the culture of violence making an ominous entry under the watch of the Chief Minister. Moreso, it is seen as an act of desperation on the part of the ruling BJD to hold on to power by any means.
Sitting inside his luxury van, which going by media reports, was commissioned at a whopping cost of Rs. 2 Crore, Mr. Patnaik during his election campaign belts out two well-rehearsed sentences in Odia “Apana mane Khusi Ta” and Mu Bhi Bahut Khusi” which translated into English would mean “ Hope you all are Happy” and “ I am also very happy”.
Whether or not the people of Odisha are happy would be decided on 23 rd May, the day of counting but going by ground reports people in Odisha are unhappy about the state of affairs in the State and it will be no surprise if they would have expressed their unhappiness by using their ballot power.
-Sandeep Mahapatra, Political Observer