By Sandeep Sahu
It is obvious now. After its stupendous victory in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and commendable show in Manipur, the BJP is now convinced that Odisha is a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked. The decision to hold the party’s national executive here in Bhubaneswar in mid April, announced by the Union Petroleum ministerand the party’s Chief Ministerial face Dharmendra Pradhan on Saturday, suggests that Odisha would be the next stop in the BJP’s march to extend its footprint across India.
Ever since the unexpected win in Assam, the BJP has been focusing on Odisha in its ongoing drive into hitherto uncharted territory. A lot of painstaking work has gone into strengthening the party organization at the grassroots level, the results of which became apparent in the zilla parishad elections during which it usurped the position of the principal opposition party from the Congress and placed itself as a credible challenger to the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD). In leap-frogging from a mere 36 seats in 2012 to close to 300 in 2017, the BJP proved that the skeptics were hopelessly out of touch with the ground reality.
Just as it was savouring its encouraging show in the panchayat elections in the state came the super show in UP, which has come as a huge force multiplier for the saffron party in the state. The announcement by Pradhan that the entire BJP top brass, including the Big Three – Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP President Amit Shah and Finance minister Arun Jaitley, and all Chief Ministers of BJP ruled states, including the Man of the Moment Yogi Adityanath, will be here for the party’s national executive is further proof of the importance that the party attaches to Odisha – at least for now.
That Odisha is firmly on the BJP radar, however, has been in ample evidence even before the landslide win in UP. Not for nothing did the Prime Minister, the star campaigner for the BJP in the just concluded elections in five states, mention the party’s commendable performance in the panchayat elections on at least three occasions while campaigning in UP. The idea behind the raking up of Odisha in the middle of an election in faraway UP was two-fold: to prove that there is growing acceptance of the party even in states where it hardly had any presence in the past and to repudiate the impression that the BJP is strong only in urban areas and has little presence in the countryside.
The BJP can hardly be faulted for being so optimistic about Odisha. Two years ahead of the next Assembly elections, it has a lot going for it. It is now obvious that the BJD – and its supremo Naveen Patnaik – are not quite the force they used to be in 2014. An analysis of the voting pattern in the panchayat elections shows that the party has been able to retain just 90 of the 117 Assembly seats it had won in 2014. Its votes share has fallen from 43.4% in 2014 to 40.8% even as the BJP has lifted its tally from 10 Assembly seats to 43 and its vote share from just 18% to 33.03% – quantum jump of over 15% – in the same period. (Source: Sambad). That the vote share of the Congress, the main rival to the BJD till recently, has fallen from 25.7% to just 18.04% in the period between 2014 and 2017 is another encouraging development for the saffron party. It believes that with the right mix of smart electoral strategy and solid groundwork, it can narrow down the gap between itself and the BJD further – and maybe even pip it – in the two years left for the Assembly elections.
Secondly, Narendra Modi has proved after the UP elections that he is a bigger political brand now than he was in the run up to the 2014 general elections. After all, the election in UP was being fought entirely in his name and without a Chief Ministerial face. Odisha may not have been swayed by the Modi wave in 2014, but things would certainly be different in 2019.
Thirdly, in Dharmendra Pradhan, the BJP now has a credible Chief Ministerial face, most of his challengers having accepted the writing on the wall and reconciled themselves to the inevitable. The Union Petroleum minister has been criticized for spending more time in Odisha than in discharging his responsibilities as a minister. But he has spent his time in the state well, networking with party leaders and workers, formulating strategy and winning over potential rivals. One of the reasons the people kept voting for the BJD in the last two elections was that they did not find a credible face in the Opposition. With Pradhan now emerging as such a face, the battle now looks more even than it did earlier.
All this, however, is not to suggest that Odisha is waiting to fall into the BJP’s bag. A week, they say, is a long time in politics. And two years is eternity. A lot can happen between now and 2019 that can change things completely. But right now, the BJP is certainly in the upswing.