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Sandeep Sahu

Rarely has an Assembly election received so much of attention – and for so long. The spotlight turned to this little known constituency in Bargarh district soon after the untimely demise of sitting Congress MLA Subal Sahu on August 22 last year and has not, despite the media’s well known short attention span on any issue, shifted till now.

Part of the reason for this sustained media attention, of course, is the uncertainty over the by-election date that lasted nearly five months with charges and counter-charges flying thick and fast between the BJP on the one side and the BJD-Congress on the other over the Election Commission’s alleged dilly-dallying in announcing the date. But another reason for the keen interest in the by-poll was the curiosity about which way the political wind is blowing after the panchayat elections last year indicated that the ruling party’s stranglehold over the state may be slackening somewhat following 17 uninterrupted years in power. Everyone was keen to see if the results in the zilla parishad elections in February, 2017 were just a fluke or an indication of the shape of things to come. Equally, there was tremendous interest in finding out if the corrective measures applied by BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik since the debacle of sorts in the panchayat elections – a complete transformation in the way he dealt with the public and the media, the repeated emphasis on party leaders using social media to get the party’s point across, a stern directive to party workers to go back to the people and so on - have had the desired result and arrested the slide, if any.

It goes without saying that the stakes arereally high for all three major parties in the fray, though the discussion has centred more on the chances of the BJD and BJP. After all, this was one seat that refused to go the BJD way for three successive elections – in 2004, 2009 & 2014 – during a decade when the ruling party was going from strength to strength and chose to cast its lot with the Congress, which was steadily losing ground in the state during the same period, instead. It was politically significant that Sahu defeated no less than Prasanna Acharya, the former minister and a BJD heavyweight, in 2014. It is hard to say whether it was due to some inherent strength of the party in the constituency or the personal popularity of the late Subal Sahu, the three-time MLA from the constituency. But in roping in Rita Sahu, Subal Sahu’s wife, into the party and then announcing her name as the BJD candidate in the by-poll even before the fire in the pyre of her late husband had fully extinguished, the ruling party left no one in doubt about its assessment that the late MLA enjoyed substantial support in the constituency and the sympathy factor for his widow would enable it to sail through the election in a seat that has eluded it for so long. As Leader of Opposition Narasingha Mishra emphasized in Bhubaneswar on Wednesday, the implications of the Bijepur by-election goes well beyond the constituency and the district and could mean the difference between Congress retaining and losing its LoP status in the Assembly now that the High Court has set aside the election of Jogesh Singh, the Congress MLA from Sundargarh constituency.

The stakes are equally high – may be even higher – for the BJP because the Bijepur by-poll would show whether or not its good show in the zila parishad election - including in Bargarh district where it won 25 out of the 34 seats in February, 2017 - was just a flash in the pan. If the party wins Bijepur, it would certainly make it upbeat ahead of the next Assembly elections, which may well take place before its scheduled time of April/May, 2019.

If, however, the BJD manages to wrest the seat back into its fold, it would signal that it has regained any ground it may have lost and it would be extremely difficult now to stop the Naveen juggernaut in the next elections. The ruling party, of course, has ticked all the right boxes and plugged all possible loopholes so as not to leave anything to chance. The party was first off the blocks, roping in Subal Sahu’s widow and announcing her candidature even before the other two parties started thinking seriously about the by-election. Next, the government announced a mega underground, pipeline based lift irrigation system worth a whopping Rs 1240 crore, taking care to name it after poet extraordinaire Gangadhar Meher to cash in on local sentiments. It then followed it up with according NAC status to Bijepur and announcing the setting up of a sub registrar office that would benefit the people of over 100 villages. The party has deputed Labour minister Sushant Singh and dispatched several senior leaders to camp in the constituency to ensure nothing goes wrong.

If the BJD wins Bijepur, no eyebrows will be raised. But if the BJP – or even the Congress – manages to win after all that the BJD and its government has done, it is bound to be seen as the surest possible sign of the declining support for the ruling party and energise the Opposition. By-elections are usually fought on local issues and rarely influence the course of Assembly or Parliamentary elections. But in this particular case, the implications of the result would certainly go far beyond Bijepur because it would take place so close to the Assembly elections.

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