Odisha: Friends no more

The battle for Odisha is getting fiercer with the main contestants — the BJP and Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) — going all out against each other. Apparently hopeful of not only winning a majority of the 21 Lok Sabha seats at stake but also of forming a BJP government in the state on its own for the first time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is himself leading the charge against the regional party which had, until recently, been supporting the NDA government at the Centre on a slew of controversial issues including the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The prime minister, who had described chief minister and BJD supremo Patnaik as his friend during his last visit to Odisha on 5 March, was all dressed up in battle gear as he addressed his first election rally in the state at Berhampur on 6 May.

Signalling the end of bonhomie with Patnaik, he launched a blistering attack on the regional party and its boss. Throwing a direct challenge to Patnaik, Modi asserted that the expiry date of the BJD government in Odisha was 4 June, the day election results would be announced.

Urging people to give the BJP a chance to make Odisha the number one state in the country, Modi also took a dig at Patnaik’s poor knowledge of Odia: “Odisha needs a chief minister who understands Odia language and culture.”

Accusing the BJD government, which has ruled the state uninterrupted for the last 24 years, of failing to use the state’s vast resources for its development, PM Modi said, “You have given 50 years to Congress and 25 years to BJD. Just give five years to the BJP. We will make Odisha the number one state in the country.” He even invited people to take part in the BJP chief minister’s swearing-in ceremony on 10 June.

The chief minister, who usually avoids responding to such barbs from his rivals, was quick to respond this time. “The BJP has been daydreaming for a long time,” he said in a video clip which shows him in conversation with his man Friday and chief poll strategist V.K. Pandian, who recently took voluntary retirement from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) to join politics.

Bureaucrat-turned-politician Pandian, who has been the focal point of the opposition’s attack in this election, also appeared to have accepted the challenge thrown by the prime minister.

“Naveen Patnaik will take his oath as the chief minister of Odisha for the sixth consecutive time between 11.30 am and 1.30 pm on 9 June,” he averred, looking supremely confident about his party’s victory.

It is now amply clear that it is going to bea no-holds-barred battle between the BJD and BJP in the state. The saffron party, which won eight Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2019, an increase of seven seats compared to its 2014 tally of just one, is hoping to further improve its performance.

In the last election, five of its Lok Sabha seats came from western Odisha, which is considered to be a BJP stronghold where there was an undercurrent in favour of PM Modi. The party apparently hopes that this undercurrent in its favour still exists not only in the western belt but also in the rest of the state and that it will become stronger as the campaign progresses.

Going by the calculations of its strategists, who do not wish to be identified, the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally could rise up to 15 this time, while its Assembly seats would increase at least three-fold compared to the 23 it won in 2019. “The impact of the Prime Minister’s campaign is going to be the most important factor. We are even hopeful of forming a government in the state,” said one of the party strategists.

The BJP’s confidence, however, does not appear justified if one takes into account the results of the last panchayat elections, held three years after the 2019 election results were announced.

The results of the rural polls showed a steep decline in the BJP’s fortunes, with the party winning just 42 zila parishad seats out of the 852 at stake. This was in sharp contrast to its 2017 panchayat poll performance when it had won 297 zila parishad seats.

The BJD, on the other hand, swept the 2022 rural polls, bagging a record 766 zila parishad seats, a result of the course-corrections it had made in the wake of the 2019 general election results to retrieve the ground it had conceded to the BJP in some areas.

BJP strategists argue that general elections are entirely different from panchayat polls, where the issues and sentiments of the electorate are different. Hence, the party remains determined to step up its attack on the chief minister, which is evident not only from Modi’s barbs at him at the Berhampur rally but also from the interview he gave recently to a news channel where he raised the issue of ‘Odia asmita’ (pride) being in danger under the Patnaik regime.

The saffron party is also making a concerted effort to break Patnaik’s stronghold among women who have voted for his party faithfully in every election since its inception.

In its first serious attempt at undermining the BJD’s female vote-bank, the BJP has got senior IAS officer Sujata R. Karthikeyan transferred from the department of Mission Shakti, which supports over six lakh women self-help groups (SHGs) comprising 70 lakh members. Karthikeyan, who was the commissioner-cum-secretary of the department, happens to be Pandian’s wife.

Karthikeyan, who comes from Kendrapara district in Odisha, was moved from the department on the instructions of the Election Commission (EC), which in turn acted on the BJP’s allegation that she was a ‘BJD agent’ who was trying to influence women to vote for the regional party. The EC ordered her transfer to a ‘non-public facing’ department.

Mission Shakti, which was earlier a directorate under the department of women and child development, turned into a full-fledged government department in 2021 with the aim of empowering women by organising them into income-generating self-help groups.

These groups are currently supported by a number of government departments which offer them new avenues of work. The government also arranges bank loans for them to take up a slew of livelihood activities. Thescope of these SHGs had expanded tremendously with Karthikeyan’s taking up the leadership of the department.

Their political significance lies in the reach the SHGs enjoy in the state’s rural belt, with a presence in almost every block right up to the panchayat level. Patnaik acknowledged their popularity and influence when he fielded septuagenarian SHG leader Pramila Bisoi as his party’s candidate from Aska Lok Sabha constituency in 2019.

The constituency has always been close to Patnaik’s heart as he had made his electoral debut from Aska in a bye-election in 1997 following the death of his father Biju Patnaik.

The party’s organisational secretary and Sambalpur Lok Sabha candidate Pranab Prakash Das has alleged that this is an attempt by the BJP to shut down the Mission Shakti programme, which has asked almost every government department to identify specific projects in which women SHGs could be engaged.

While there is no denying the reach and influence of these SHGs which can play a key role in motivating women in any election, no one had ever complained before. Now, the BJP leadership appears convinced that women SHG members are being brainwashed to act as virtual agents of the ruling party in this election, while the BJD sees this as part of the saffron party’s conspiracy to undermine the movement for women’s empowerment.

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