It’s the Panchayat polls, stupid!

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By Sandeep Sahu

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The unseemly tug-of-war between the Centre and the Odisha government over the guest list at functions being organized across the state by the Union Petroleum & Natural Gas (PNG) ministry for the phase-wise roll out of the Ujjwala scheme points to two things. First, the two governments are locked in an essentially political battle that should have been better left to the two concerned parties – the BJP and BJD – to fight out. Second, the war of words between the two contending parties has assumed a particularly virulent tone at least partly because the panchayat polls are round the corner.

The vicious, no-holds-barred nature of the fight was in ample evidence recently at Nimapara where supporters of the voluble local BJD legislator created mayhem at the function organized for the purpose. Earlier, the BJD had created a furore over the presence of BJP state unit president Basanta Panda and the absence of the local MLA and MP (both of them from the BJD, it goes without saying) at the Ujjwala function in Sambalpur. The ruling party certainly had a case to take umbrage. After all, Panda was neither a legislator from the area nor had any other credentials to be a guest at a function organized by the Central government.

But Union Petroleum secretary KD Tripathy has now taken the bottom out of the BJD’s argument by revealing that both the local MLA Dr Raseswari Panigrahi and local MP Nagendra Pradhan had indeed been invited for the function but had chosen to ignore it. Permission granted for Ujjawala functions had been withdrawn at the last minute causing avoidable hassles for the organizers, he pointed out.

Tripathy’s letter was in response to chief secretary Aditya Padhi’s letter, which lent an institutional dimension to an essentially political problem, making a case for local political representatives to be invited for Ujjawala roll out functions.

That the BJP is out to take political mileage out of a Central government scheme is beyond argument. But look who is crying foul? The party that has perfected the art – and craft – of using government schemes for furtherance of political goals. Not content with appropriating credit for schemes of its government, the BJD even sought to usurp credit for a centrally-funded scheme like the 108 ambulance for considerable time during its third term in office. It was only after the Narendra Modi government took charge that a red-faced Naveen Patnaik government changed the writing on the ambulance that sought to mislead the people into believing it was a state government scheme.

To make matters worse in this case, the BJP has chosen to target the poorer sections of rural women, the most solid vote bank of the BJD as successive elections have shown. It is the fear of losing the support of even a part of this segment in the panchayat elections scheduled early next year that has got the ruling party’s goat.

As the panchayat polls draw nearer, the war of words can be trusted to get shriller. As is evident in several other issues, including the Mahanadi water dispute with Chhattisgarh and the Odisha government’s teacher-on-call scheme, the BJP has made it amply clear that it has shed its gloves and is now ready to join the battle with the BJD in right earnest. It clearly sees the panchayat polls as a time to test the waters before it draws up its blueprint for the Battle Royale in 2019.

On its part, the BJD can be trusted to fight every inch of the way to retain its turf. Party leaders like Nabarangpur MP Balabhadra Majhi have made it clear that the BJP bid to cash in on the scheme will be opposed tooth and nail, even if leads to a law and order situation.

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Where does that leave the Congress? The party already gives the impression that it has lost out in the race for the panchayat poll sweepstakes. And there are no signs of a revival anytime soon visible on the horizon.

The panchayat elections 2017 will give us a clearer idea if the 2019 Assembly polls will be an essentially two-horse race.

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