Sandeep Sahu

The stage is set. For two swearing ceremonies in the space of 24 hours!!

As campaign rhetorics go, this one is perhaps more bizarre than anything we have heard so far. Barely an hour after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced, in his maiden campaign rally in Odisha in Berhampur on Monday, that he had come to invite the people in the crowd to the swearing in of the BJP government in Bhubaneswar on June 10, VK Pandian (who likes being addressed as Kartik Pandian these days) made a triumphant declaration that Naveen Patnaik will be sworn in as the Chief Minister for the sixth straight time on June 9, a day earlier. For good measure, he even specified the time – between 11.30 am and 1.30 pm – of the swearing in an apparent show of bravado. Social media handles of BJD were quick to add the venue - Janata Maidan in Bhubaneswar – while inviting people to join.

All this even before the first vote has been cast in this election!!

While the two back to back announcements have provided some mirth and amusement to the people at large, they are, at another level, also a sign of desperation on the part of the two major contenders for power: BJD and BJP. The former has realized that after remaining in power for 24 years, it is finally facing some anti-incumbency. The first signs that all is not well in the BJD had come well before the campaign got underway; during the three weeks in March when the party was engaged in talks with its principal rival – the BJP – for a possible alliance. That the talks failed in the end is another matter. But the fact that such talks took place in the first place was an indirect admission on the part of the BJD that it is not quite the force it was last time. It is not yet clear who initiated the talks and who scuttled it in the end. But the message that went out to the people was that it was the BJD which was keener of the two on an alliance while the BJP played truant. Why on earth, went the reasoning, would a seemingly invincible BJD even agree to talk about such an untenable alliance even if the proposal had come from the other side? The failed talks seriously damaged the reputation of the ruling party in the public perception while the BJP came out as a party confident of doing well on its own.     

The second pointer to the waning confidence of the BJD came with the choice of its candidates for the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. While party-hopping in the run up to elections hasn’t exactly been unheard of, never had the BJD given tickets to so many poll-eve recruits from other parties, primarily the BJP. As if that was not enough indication of its sense of unease, the party fought shy of denying tickets outright to some of its tainted leaders – lest they damage the winning prospects of the official candidates – and resorted to the compromise formula of giving tickets to the family members of these leaders – wives in most cases, but sons, daughters and brothers as well. The nonchalance - and the confidence of being able to overcome any possible rebellion - that marked the ticket distribution in 2019 were conspicuous by their absence this time. In their place, there was an unmistakable sign of timidity – even pusillanimity – about creating too many enemies within while the party was gearing up to face the challenge from a resurgent BJP.

On the other side of the political divide, the BJP too has betrayed a sense of desperation. Having realized in the light of its experience of the last three elections that it is extremely difficult to break the stranglehold of the BJD – and Naveen’s connect with the people - with conventional rhetoric about corruption and maladministration, the saffron party has zeroed in on Naveen’s Achilles heel: Kartik Pandian, the heir apparent to the BJD supremo. The whole narrative of ‘Odia Asmita’ it has sought to weave in its campaign is actually a scarcely veiled attack on Pandian’s Tamil origins. The party is clearly banking heavily on the bureaucrat-turned-politician to win the elections by whipping up Odia pride against this apparent bid to impose an ‘outsider’ on the people of Odisha.

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In short, this election is more a referendum on Pandian than anything else. Whether the ‘4.5 crore family members’ of Naveen Patnaik will accept his Man Friday as the heir to his political empire will be known on June 4. As will be the date of swearing in: June 9 or June 10!!

(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.)