Course Correction Time for BJD

By Sandeep Sahu

The ‘unofficial’ seat count in the first phase zilla parishad election given by television news channels on Monday evening varied widely. If Kalinga TV showed the BJD winning 120 out of the 188 zilla parishad zones that went to polls earlier in the day, News 7 gave the ruling party winning no more than 93. Figures for the other two major contenders – BJP and Congress – naturally varied accordingly. Figures bandied about by leading Odia newspapers on Tuesday morning also followed the same pattern and varied widely with one another. But if there is one takeaway from this maze of confusing and conflicting figures, it is this: The BJP has made massive inroads into the seemingly impregnable BJD fort while the Congress has been pushed to the margins. If the outcome of the other four rounds is anything like the one on Monday, then alarm bells should start ringing in the ruling party war room. [Reports suggest that they already have!]

The ‘results’, though still ‘unofficial’, have stunned the BJD, the political pundits and – I dare say – even the BJP to an extent. No one really foresaw the saffron party taking such giant strides in the panchayat polls. The consensus view was it had a few pockets of influence in urban areas – primarily in western Odisha – and was no match for the BJD which has honed its skills of winning elections into a fine art. Nor did anyone imagine that a party that has itself been in the fringes for long would push the Congress to the margins of the electoral sweepstakes. Buoyed by the spirit-lifting performance in the first round, the BJP can be trusted to go all out in the remaining four phases of polls. On its part, the BJD can be expected to pull out all stops to make sure that the results of the other rounds do not go the way of the first – by employing means fair and foul.

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So, what really went wrong for the BJD? For starters, after 17 long years during which the BJD won virtually everything in sight, voter fatigue finally appears to have set in. The rampant corruption at the grassroots level, the official apathy, the over-dependence on Naveen Patnaik as a vote catcher and the arrogance of ruling party leaders have all contributed to voter disenchantment with the BJD. Farmers and victims of chit fund scam, who together constitute a sizeable section of the voting public, have been a particularly disillusioned lot. As a result, people have started yearning for a change and reposed their trust with the BJP for now. Ironically, the decimation of the Congress, till now the principal opposition party in the state, has cost the ruling party dear since it has converted what would have normally been a three-cornered contest into an essentially two-horse race. With little hope of a Congress revival in the two years left for the next Assembly elections, things are only going to get tougher for the ruling party.

Secondly, the results suggest that doles can win elections for you only a few times and not all the time. After a while, it starts following the law of diminishing returns and that is precisely what seems to have happened in the panchayat elections.

Thirdly, Naveen is yet to find someone who can step into the shoes of his erstwhile mentor Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, who combined his vast administrative experience with a rare political cunning and meticulous planning and execution of political strategy at the grassroots level. Till his ambition got the better of him, Pyari Babu ran the party with clinical efficiency. Naveen’s efforts to replace him with a coterie of bureaucrats have clearly proved to be a non-starter. The party chief’s over-dependence on a few trusted bureaucrats and complete marginalization of party leaders, including ministerial colleagues, has taken its toll. After all, you cannot run the state – and even the party – with the help of bureaucrats and hold party leaders accountable for electoral debacles. [At least some leaders, I am sure, would be rejoicing at the setback and hoping that Naveen would see reason before it is too late.]

Fourthly, the BJD’s over-dependence on the Mahanadi dispute with Chhattisgarh clearly did not work in its favour. Nor did its constant refrain of ‘central neglect’ work. Like the vote-gathering ability of doles, this done-to- death phrase became a victim of the law of diminishing returns.

There are some who would add Naveen’s refusal to campaign extensively – as he did in the 2012 – to the list of reasons for the BJD’s unexpectedly poor performance in the panchayat elections. But I, for one, do not believe the results would have been any different if he had campaigned more vigorously. His own image has taken a severe battering since the time of the 2014 general elections.

And what worked for the BJP? The shrinking political space of the Congress is certainly one thing that helped it notch up the kind of figures it has. Those disenchanted with the BJD have clearly cast their lot with the BJP. Contrary to conventional wisdom, demonetization does not appear to have had any impact on the outcome of the panchayat polls. If anything, it may have worked to the BJP’s advantage.

It is not as if all is lost for BJD. At the end of the day, it still remains the No 1 party in the state while the BJP still has a lot of catching up to do. But yes, it is certainly time for the ruling party to put its thinking cap on and plan and execute to perfection a course correction that would stand it in good stead in the next Assembly elections.