Op-Ed: Back to square one after 19 years!

Violence has been an inseparable part of elections in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal since as long as one can remember. Killings, rigging and booth capturing marked elections in many parts of the country in the pre-EVM era. Odisha, in contrast, was an island of peace in those days. Maoist violence was virtually unknown and killing unthinkable. A ballot box snatched by ‘miscreants’ here or a supporter of a political party beaten up there was all there was to report on polling day. In the early days of his reporting career, this columnist remembers the bosses in New Delhi all but ‘complaining’ about the fact that nothing happened in my state. “Yours is a strange state, for sure, Sandeep. Nothing seems to happen there” was the common refrain from the other side.

Well, Odisha has clearly come a long way since those good old days, if the incidents of violence, including at least three murders, so far are anything to go by. Organised violent attacks on leaders and supporters of rival parties have become a regular feature in this election. In just the last 24 hours, there have been at least three major incidents of violence in different parts of the state. In the first of these three incidents, at least six persons were injured, two of them critically, in a violent clash between rival groups at Kalikaprasad village in Nayagarh on Saturday. On Sunday, PCC chief Niranjan Patnaik’s convoy was attacked at Bhandaripada village under Ramachandrapur police station in Keonjhar district, leaving him and nine others injured and 10 vehicles damaged. In the third incident, a bomb was hurled on the vehicle of Jagannath Pradhan, BJP candidate for the Bhubansewar (Central) Assembly seat, at Delta Square in the heart of Bhubaneswar.

Let there be no mistake. None of the major political parties is averse to using violence as a means to get votes or ‘teaching a lesson’ to the rival. But based on the evidence so far, there is little doubt that the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has been the culprit in most of the cases of violence so far. At one level, this is an indication of the general degeneration of the political process and lumpenisation of the party worker. But at another level, it also can be read as a sign of the desperation of the ruling party; a manifestation of the realization that this election is not going to be a cakewalk that it had assumed it would be. It may still win power for the fifth successive term. But the BJD is certainly feeling the heat this time.

The earliest signal that the ruling party was keen on intimidating rivals and voters alike at election time, however, came in March last year when the Naveen Patnaik government announced the birth of Biju Yuva Vahini (BYV), a purported volunteer force that would supposedly engage in social work, at the expense of the state exchequer. The importance of this force for the present dispensation was clear from the fact that budgetary provision was made for Rs. 450 crore to take care of its expenses for the next three years. A year down the line, everyone knows it’s an extension of the BJD raised at government expense with the ongoing elections in mind. Not for nothing has it been christened Biju ‘Goonda’ Vahini. While it’s not clear if anyone from the BYV is involved in the attacks on rival parties, it is possible that some of them are.

The sheer irony of it! Naveen Patnaik came to power when the lumpenisation of the cadres of the then ruling party (Congress) was complete under the JB Patnaik dispensation. Hordes of hoodlums roamed the city streets and goons terrorized villagers as the police looked on helplessly. Naveen came as a breath of fresh air and promised an end to this culture of violence – and actually delivered on that promise during the early years of his Chief Ministership. But alas! Nearly two decades after, he has presided over the return to that same despicable culture.

It’s back to square one after 19 years!

(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)