Sandeep Sahu

There are two broad takeaways from the BJD’s first list of candidates for 15 Lok Sabha and 72 Assembly seats released on Wednesday. One: the selection of candidates in five to six Lok Sabha seats appears to have been guided by a desire to make it easy for the BJP to win. Two: the party has abandoned its alleged plan to field newcomers in a number of assembly constituencies and played it safe to make sure it returns to power for the sixth straight time.

Take Dhenkanal Lok Sabha seat as a test case. When BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik announced the name of Abinash Samal as the party candidate for the seat, even seasoned journalists – who usually have the state on their fingertips – were left scratching their heads and asking each other; “Abinash who?” It took a while for them to find out that he was a doctor by profession, who had joined the BJD only last month. His name was nowhere in discussion as a prospective candidate for Lok Sabha till his name was announced. Just about the only qualification he appears to have – apart from being a doctor – is the fact that he is the nephew of Sudhir Samal, the MLA from Dhenkanal and the president of the district unit of the party. As is the norm with all such decisions in the BJD, no reasons were given as to why sitting party MP Mahesh Sahu was dropped or someone else from the party not considered.

Bhubaneswar too presents a curious case. Here is a man who joined the party in the morning and was named as the candidate in the afternoon. An Air India pilot till recently, Manmath Routray’s biggest qualification is that he is the son of veteran Congress leader and Jatni MLA Suresh Routray. Only the supremo – and his advisor-in-chief – knows why he was preferred over a seasoned campaigner like Prasanna ‘Baba’ Patsani, who won the seat five times in a row before being ignored in 2019. Age cannot be a factor since he is reportedly being considered for the Chilka assembly seat. Even Arup Patnaik, the former top cop who lost to Aparajita Sarangi of BJP last time, would have been a better bet. Some people are saying the ‘pocket votes’ of ‘Sura Bhai’ would get automatically transferred to Manmath since he would be backing his son, notwithstanding his public posturing, and help him win. But things don’t really work out that way in modern day politics.

The choice of candidates in Puri, Cuttack and Kendrapara too must have caused greater celebration in the BJP camp than among the BJD cadres in these constituencies. Having lost in Bhubaneswar in 2019, Arup Patnaik would have been a wiser and worthier candidate in Bhubaneswar. But he was shunted out to Puri instead for reasons that can only be speculated on. Santrupt Mishra, the candidate from Cuttack who resigned as the head of HR in the Aditya Birla group and joined the BJD last month, comes with a baggage. The company he worked for till recently has come out as the biggest contributor to the BJD coffers through the electoral bond scheme, having paid Rs 174 crores. He may parry questions asked by the media about it, saying he is no more with the company and hence not answerable for it. But the question is sure to be asked ad nauseum during the campaign and he will have to come out with an answer at some point. After all, the entire contribution by Essel Mining, an Aditya Birla group company, was made when he was very much with the company. It remains to be seen if Anshuman Mohanty, the import from Congress, can get the unstinted support and cooperation of all sections of the local BJD unit in Kendrapara from where he has been named as the candidate.

For reasons that are all too obvious, all eyes are fixated on the battle between two heavyweights in the Sambalpur Lok Sabha constituency: Union Education minister and the face of BJP in Odisha Dharmendra Pradhan and BJD organizational secretary Pranab Prakash Das. There are two ways to look at the nomination of Das, a man from Jajpur, from a constituency where antipathy towards people from the coast finds the most vociferous expression. The first, parroted by BJD leaders and their apologists, is that the party needed a heavyweight to fight a heavyweight and Das fits the bill perfectly. They point to the war between the two on Twitter/X over the last two years or so to make their point. The second view, which appears more credible, is that he has been ‘thrown to the wolves’, as it were, because someone more powerful than him in the party doesn’t want him to be in the thick of things in the state. The reasoning goes thus. Even if he manages to defy the gigantic odds and win, he will go to the parliament and thus will not be in a position to call the shots in the state – or the party.

Mercifully, similar petty considerations don’t appear to have vitiated the choice of candidates for the Assembly seats. Having seen which the wind is blowing, the party has wisely resisted the temptation to make summary changes and has played it safe, nominating almost all the ‘usual suspects’, even those with a tainted reputation. The idea is to ensure that the party wins a comfortable majority in the assembly so that it can rule the state for another term and Naveen Patnaik can fulfill his dream of going down as the longest serving Chief Minister anywhere in the country.

At the height of the hard-nosed negotiations with the BJP for a possible alliance, the BJD was reportedly willing to concede as many as 13-14 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats to the latter, but it was insistent on contesting over 100 out of the 147 seats in the Assembly. And the latter apparently turned out to be the deal-breaker in the end. It is not difficult to understand why the party did not want to concede an inch when it came to the assembly seats or offer a power sharing arrangement to the saffron party. It knows it will remain politically crucial only as long as it rules Odisha without having to lean on BJP. Given the predatory record of the BJP in other states, giving it a share in power would be nothing short of an invitation to disaster. It also knows 2019 is not 2024. Much water has flown down the Mahanadi over the last five years and landslide victory of the kind it registered in the last three elections is highly unlikely this time. That’s why it has taken a conscious decision to guard its home turf zealously. A few Lok Sabha seats here and there is a small price to keep the ‘wolves’ at bay.  

Attempts to forge an alliance with the BJP may have failed. But if there is one thing that has been made abundantly clear by the BJD’s choice of candidates, it is that the ‘informal alliance’ that has marked its relations with the saffron party over the last five years will continue unhindered even after the elections.

“Modi in Delhi, Naveen in Bhubaneswar” is an arrangement that suits both parties just fine.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)