Despite Bijepur, next elections unlikely to be cakewalk for BJD


If Bijepur deflated the balloon, North East has pumped in fresh air. Just three days after the BJP was brought down to earth by the stunning defeat in the most high profile by-election in the state in recent memory, the commendable performance in four north eastern states, especially the stupendous victory in the Left bastion of Tripura, has infused the saffron party with renewed vigour.

BJP President Amit Shah’s assertion soon after the results came in yesterday that the ‘Golden Era’ of the party would not begin till it won Bengal, Odisha and Kerala makes it abundantly clear that notwithstanding the setback of sorts in Bijepur, the party is not going to abandon its ambitious ‘Mission 120’ anytime soon. Union minister Jual Oram reiterated much the same when he claimed this morning that after Manik Sarkar, it was time for Naveen Patnaik to be shown the door.

Given the margin of victory in Bijepur, Oram’s claim may appear to be daydreaming – just as BJD leaders have suggested it is. But it would be facile to see the outcome in Bijepur as a precursor of what lies in store in the 2019 elections. For one thing, the BJP hasn’t done as badly in Bijepur as the margin of loss suggests. After all, it has doubled its vote share compared to the 2014 elections despite the series of blunders – both strategic and operational – it made during the long-drawn campaign. Had it not been for the Congress vote getting transferred almost entirely to the BJD, the victory margin would have been a lot smaller than it eventually turned out to be.

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For another, it would be well nigh impossible for the ruling party to pay the kind of focused attention it did in Bijepur in every single constituency in the state in a general election. Nor would it have the amount of time it got in Bijepur to plug all possible loopholes, manage local political equations and neutralize dissent within the party in every constituency of the state.

This is, however, not to suggest that Elections 2019 (or whenever it takes place) would be a cakewalk for the BJP. There are far too many imponderables to make any such assertion at this stage. While the BJD may not get the kind of leeway it did in Bijepur in the general elections, it still holds all the aces. The biggest of them, of course, is the vote gathering abilities of party supremo and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Even after 18 years in power, his affair with the voters of the state has shown no signs of souring. There is no one in the BJP – save Modi perhaps – who can match the BJD boss in charming the voters. With the principal vote catcher for the BJP having to spread himself thin across the country (Assembly elections in Odisha are going to be held simultaneously with the next Lok Sabha elections), the most that Modi can afford in Odisha is a few rallies and road shows in the state. In any case, if Modi failed to trump Naveen at the height of his popularity in 2014, there is no reason to believe that 2019 would be any different. It goes without saying that there is no leader in the state unit of the party, including Union Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who can match Naveen’s popularity.

The second imponderable is which way traditional Congress voters would tilt. Will they behave the way they did in Bijepur and cast their lot with the BJD (with or without a tacit understanding between the two erstwhile rivals) or go with the BJP as they are widely believed to have done in the zilla parishad elections last year? There is also a third possibility – though it looks highly improbable at the moment – of a revival of sorts in the Congress fortunes between now and the next elections. If there is even a minor revival in its electoral prospects, it can change the political equations dramatically. But it must be said that the BJD stands to gain more than the BJP in such scenario.

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As things stand today, the odds are stacked heavily against the BJP. But with the right kind of strategy and solid ground work, there is no reason why the party cannot turn the tables on the BJD. After all, it did increase its vote share from a measly 1.5% to 43% and the number of seats from 0 to 35 in Tripura in just five years. In comparison, the party is on a much better footing in Odisha with a vote share of 18-20%. But the party will have to do a lot more than what it did in Bijepur to take it closer to 40% and tilt the balance of power in its favour.

Before it does anything, the BJP must do an honest introspection and analyse what went wrong in Bijepur. That intemperate attacks on Naveen, including the hurling of footwear and eggs on him and the cow dung attack on his private secretary, and recourse to violence worked against the party are a given. The attack on officers in the CMO didn’t go down well with the voters either. The Odisha unit of the party must realize that solid organizational work on the ground rather than a media-driven campaign is what won the day for it first in Assam and then in Tripura. The party must also try and exploit the fissures within the ruling party and make them work to its advantage. Despite Naveen’s personal popularity, it would be wrong to assume that the voters in the state and are a happy, contented lot. The BJP must try to cash in on the disaffection at the ground level.

All this is, of course, easier said than done. But that is the only way the BJP can hope to give the BJD a tough fight, if not win the next election outright.

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