The result of the much hyped Bijepur went along expected lines. The BJD proved once again, if any proof was needed at all, that it has no match when it comes to winning elections. It also proved that the minor setback in last year’s Zilla Parishad polls, which emboldened the BJP to start dreaming about Mission 120 in the next Assembly election, was just a blip on the radar and the corrective measures applied since then have brought the party back on tracks. While the BJP failed to live up to its pre-poll bragging, the party did not really do too badly. As the final figures showed, it not only retained its vote share of the last Assembly election, but also managed to nearly double the number of votes it got in 2014. A significant share of this additional vote must have included the vote brought in by its candidate Ashok Panigrahi, who had got 18, 000+ votes while contesting as an independent after failing to secure a BJD ticket in 2014.
Just about the only surprise thrown up by the results was the unexpectedly poor performance of the Congress, which lost its deposit in a constituency it had won three consecutive times even as the BJD held sway in the rest of the state. There are two ways to see this disastrous performance by the party. First, it just goes to prove that the successive victories in the last three elections were more the result of the late Subal Sahu’s personal standing in the constituency than support for the party he represented. Second, those who did not want to vote for the BJP this time decided that the BJD was a better bet to cast their vote for than the Congress. Realising that the knives are certain to be unsheathed by his detractors and the demand for a change of guard gather fresh momentum, PCC president Prasad Harichandan had little choice but to offer his resignation.
The big takeaway from the Bijepur result, however, is what it could mean for the next Assembly elections. If the performance of the Congress in this election is anything to go by, the next election is going to be more of a straight fight between the BJD and the BJP than a triangular contest as anticipated, barring a miracle between now and the the next election. While the BJP would no doubt exult over its feat of pushing the Congress into irrelevance, the real beneficiary in such a scenario would be the BJD. That is because the votes that would have otherwise gone to the Congress would now go to the ruling party. It’s actually a “Heads I win, tails you lose” situation for the BJD. If it won the 2014 elections handsomely because of the split in the anti-BJD vote, it can now bank on the anti-BJP vote to come to its kitty, just as it happened in Bijepur. What could, however, worry the ruling party is the fact that for all the self goals scored by the BJP during the campaign, it allowed the BJP to increase its votes significantly.
The poll results also showed that BJD supremo and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has not lost his charm and continues to hold sway among voters in the state notwithstanding speculation about the supposed loss of his magic. True, he had staked everything in the Bijepur by-election, even taking the unprecedented step of spending two consecutive days campaigning for the party candidate in the constituency. But you cannot really fault him for that because the stakes were really high this time. Had his party lost, it would have convinced the people of the state his sway over the voters is beginning to wane and would have given the opposition, BJP in particular, a momentum ahead of the next election.
In contrast, the result brought down Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan’s political stock several notches down. The result proved that for all the backing he received from the central leadership of the party, he is yet to reach a position where he can take on Naveen Patnaik. When he takes stock of the results, he would realise the blunders his party committed in the run up to the election – starting from throwing eggs at the Chief Minister’s dais in Balasore to the murderous attack on Labour minister Sushant Singh’s brother and his associates, leaving one person dead – cost it dear in Bijepur. The party may claim that it has been falsely implicated in the case. But coming as it did after the attack in Talasari and the residence of Mr. VK Pandian, the Chief Minister’s private secretary, there would be few takers for such a claim. It’s intemperate diatribes against the Chief Minister clearly had the opposite effect of what it had intended. It showed the BJP as a party that violated all accepted norms of electoral conduct while presenting Naveen as a shining example of restraint and political decorum.
It would, however, be wrong to see the Bijepur result as a precursor of what lies in store in the next election. A lot can change between now and the next polls. The BJP would do well to introspect, find out where it erred and apply the required correctives. On its part, the BJD would do well to realise that the strategy that won it the day – roping in Subal Sahu’s wife as the party candidate – was a good ‘horses for courses’ ploy in Bijepur, but it cannot be replicated in the whole of the state without causing serious resentment within the party. As for the Congress, the future looks really dismal. At a time when the party is showing signs of revival at the national level, the disastrous performance in Bijepur would certainly not inspire confidence among party cadres in the state. Even a change of guard in the PCC may be too late to prevent the party from hurtling down the road to irrelevance.