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Sandeep Sahu

To use a cricketing term, it came against the run of play. Just when detractors of Prasad Harichandan were beginning to reconcile themselves to working under him at least till the next elections came the decision to replace him with Niranjan Patnaik.

By all accounts, even Patnaik appeared to have reconciled himself to having his dream of leading the PCC again thwarted till the AICC, in a move that took many by surprise, announced his name as the new president of the state unit. Reacting to outgoing PCC chief Prasad Harichandan's statement the other day that the party would soon have a 'Nabakalebara', a peeved Patnaik had quipped that the 'Nabakalebara' would not involve 'Brahma Parivartan'. Those familiar with the 'Nabakalebara' of Lord Jagannath did not fail to understand what he was hinting at. He obviously believed that while there would be some cosmetic changes in the party organisation, Prasad would continue to head the PCC. Even before leaving for New Delhi the day before yesterday, he had said he has not been invited by AICC for the parleys and was going on some other work. This can mean only two things; either he was being cheeky or was genuinely surprised by the AICC decision.

That most leaders in the Odisha unit of the Congress were against the continuation of Prasad had become abundantly clear at least a year back. It was also no secret that the overwhelming majority of those who opposed him wanted Patnaik to replace him. With most leaders and almost the entire legislative party ranged against him, Prasad had become a lame-duck president with his writ restricted to a handful of loyalists, including his voluble father-in-law Suresh Routray. And yet, the high command showed no signs that it was even considering replacing Prasad. That is why his replacement came as a surprise for everyone concerned including Prasad, who is reported to have left the meeting with the AICC leaders in a huff today.

In substituting Prasad with Niranjan, the high command has continued with its tradition of changing the PCC chief about a year ahead of elections. It happened before the 2004 when the late JB Patnaik was replaced with Jaydev Jena; before 2009 elections when Jena was replaced with KP Singhdeo and then again before the 2014 elections when Patnaik was replaced with Jena.

But the big question is: will the change have the desired result? If the changes before the last three elections are anything to go by, the answer has to be in the negative. But then the party has gone so far downhill in the last few years - and particularly during the stint of Harichandan - that it cannot perhaps go down any further. Nothing gave a better idea of the depths that the party has plumbed than its performance in the two elections in the recent past. The first of these was the Bijepur by-election in February where the Congress candidate Pranay Sahu lost his deposit in a seat the party won in the last three elections even as the BJD held sway in the rest of the state. The Congress also managed the incredible 'feat' of drawing a blank in the two NACs it had won in 2013 during Patnaik's reign as PCC chief - Atabira and Hindol. Exasperated with the inertia in the party, several Congress leaders have quit the party and joined the BJD in the recent past, the most prominent among them being former Union minister Chandrasekhar Sahu. Some others are reported to be in touch with the ruling party and the BJP and waiting for an opportune time to jump fence. It is doubtful if Patnaik's elevation as PCC chief can stem the tide.

Patnaik clearly has his task cut out. The fact that he has been saddled with three working president suggests that while the party high command may have reluctantly accepted the demand by most factions for his appointment as the PCC chief, it was unwilling to give him full powers to restructure the moribund party organisation. Given the way Prasad left the meeting with AICC leaders today, the new PCC chief may also have to grapple with factionalism though not to the extent his predecessor did. He would also have a hard time dispelling the impression in large sections of the public that the Congress has entered into a 'deal' with Naveen Patnaik to keep the BJP at bay in the next elections.

But the biggest challenge for him is whether he has enough time on hand to infuse some life into the ailing party unit given that elections are just about a year away. If he does lead a turnaround in the party's fortune, if not win the next election, he can hope to continue for some time.



(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are 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.)

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