Will A Change of Guard Help Odisha Congress?

The signals emerging from the series of meetings Odisha Congress leaders have had with party vice president Rahul Gandhi in the last week or so make one thing clear: it is all over bar the shouting for Prasad Harichandan. They also suggest that he is most likely to be replaced by Niranjan Patnaik, who was removed as PCC chief in 2013 under circumstances that are still a mystery. But the big question is whether a change of guard – with Niranjan or someone else – at this stage will really help.

When Prasad took over in December 2014, the air was thick with expectations. Here was a young, erudite and non-controversial leader who had given a very good account of himself as a legislator and a minister. More importantly, he was believed to have the ears of Rahul, the Congress No. 2 and the man who actually looked after the affairs of the party in the state. There was precious little ground to oppose him. Prasad too began very well making all the right noises with his ‘We, not I’ slogan promising a complete break with the factionalism that has become endemic in the state unit of the Congress.

But two and a half years down the line, the dream of a revival of the party lies in tatters. When the Congress ended up with just 26% of the popular vote, a mere 16 seats in the Assembly and none in the Lok Sabha in the April, 2014 elections, everyone had thought things can’t get any worse than that. But Prasad has proved everyone wrong, by managing to bring down the party’s vote share by a staggering 9% in the panchayat elections in February and ceding, for all practical purposes, the principal opposition party tag to the BJP. From a respectable 128 zila parishad seats in 2012, the party has come down to just 60 even as the BJP has leapfrogged from a paltry 36 to 297. The incumbent PCC chief has done little since then to inspire confidence in the party rank and file either. His continuation in the post has thus become highly untenable.

Assuming that the Congress high command does realise the gravity of the situation and replaces Prasad, what are the chances of a revival of the party? Niranjan, by all accounts the front runner in the race to replace him, himself gave an indication of the Herculean nature of the task when he said he would ‘’think 100 times…  no.. one lakh times’’ before accepting if he is offered the PCC chief post. Of course, it could also be his way to play hardball and strike a good bargain with the high command. After all, he was replaced as PCC chief in 2013 at a time when the moribund Congress organization in the state had just started showing signs of a revival of sorts. But astute leader that he is, the former minister could not be unaware of the enormity of challenge, especially with a resurgent BJP behaving as if the Congress does not exist in the state anymore.

Niranjan, however, has one thing going for him. In a party ridden with factionalism, he is one leader who can count on the support of most factions – at least for the first few months. If he can carry others with him – as he did in his last stint as PCC chief – there is no reason why the fortunes of the Congress party can’t look up again. But wary of the ignominious way he was shunted out last time, he would obviously insist on being given as longish term till the next elections in 2019. Sources close to him say he might also want a promise of being given a reasonably free rein to run the affairs of the state unit. Given the sleight he had to face last time round, he would be perfectly entitled to impose such conditions.

But if the high command fails to get over its tendency to spring a surprise by either giving Prasad an extended run or by replacing him with someone other than Niranjan, it could well be curtains for the party in Odisha.