Op-Ed: An Election of Many Firsts

The ongoing simultaneous polls for Lok Sabha and Assembly in Odisha will certainly go down in history as an election of several firsts; some welcome, others not so welcome.

Perhaps fittingly enough, the credit for the first of the many firsts goes to the man around whom politics in the state has revolved over the last two decades – Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo Naveen Patnaik – who announced at a Mission Shakti programme in Kendrapara, with barely hours to go for the unveiling of the polls schedule by the Election Commission, that his party would earmark 33% of the Lok Sabha seats for women. The symbolic value of the announcement can hardly be underestimated. For one thing, this was a first by any political party, not just in Odisha but the whole of the country. For another, it was a reaffirmation of Naveen’s special equation with women which, more than anything else, has ensured victory after victory to him and his party over the years. Neither the fact that the 33% reservation did not extend to the Assembly elections nor that the vast majority of women fielded were essentially wives/daughters of established male leaders who were not favoured this time or opted out of their contest dented the symbolic value of the gesture.

Naveen followed it up with wholesale changes in the list of candidates. As many as 18 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats and 43 out of the 117 Assembly seats (over one-third) it held last time saw new faces being fielded this time. While speculation was rife for month that the BJD boss was contemplating sweeping changes to beat anti-incumbency blues, the extent of changes certainly surprised most observers.

The Chief Minister also took everyone by surprise with his sudden decision to contest from Bijepur, apart from his old constituency of Hinjli. While top political leaders contesting from more than one seat has not exactly been unknown in the state, this was the first time when a sitting Chief Minister has done so. Naveen also turned out to be the first Chief Minister to meet the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) to lodge a complaint – about the denial of permission to pay the second installment of Rs. 5000 to the beneficiaries of the KALIA scheme for farmers. His decision to avoid the aerial route and opt for a hi-tech bus with all modern amenities to campaign across the state, a la Jayalalitha, completed the series of firsts that he scored.

While some party-hopping has preceded every previous election, it has reached dizzying heights in this election. Loyalty to the party/leader went for a six as leaders jumped fence after being denied tickets. Even ideology was thrown out of the window as erstwhile Communists like Bibhu Parsad Tarai and Mohan Jena joined the party the Left has despised all these years: the BJP. As if prove that ideological volte face is not a one way street, Subash Chouhan, a hardcore Sanghi for three decades, took an enormous leap of faith by joining the BJD. Leaders who had used the vilest possible words against Naveen in the past had no compunction falling at his feet and joining the BJD. At the other end of the spectrum, those who had called Narendra Modi all kinds of names in the past did not bat an eyelid while joining the BJP. In no case did this cynical U-turn assume more absurd proportions than when Sonali Sahoo, the Congress spokesperson who had beat a poster of Modi with slippers in the past, happily joined the BJP with the picture of a beaming Modi in the background!

This election also the peculiar phenomenon of candidates declining to contest – and quitting the party in some cases – after getting a ticket. And it was by no means an aberration. Leaders quitting a party after being denied tickets has become par for the course. But this was something the state had never seen before.

With the four-phase election – which, by the way, is another first for the state – not even half way through, one can expect a few more firsts before the whole process gets over.

(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)