Op-Ed: Modi contesting from Puri could be a real game-changer

There has been no official word on it yet. But that hasn’t stopped speculation about Prime Minister Narendra Modi contesting from the Puri Lok Sabha seat in the next election from reaching fever pitch.

There is a reason such speculation is not being dismissed as idle gossip. In 2014, Modi surprised everyone with his decision to contest from Varanasi, apart from Vadodara, and later choosing to retain the former. We all know how that one decision changed the fortunes of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, a state where the party was a distant third in the political sweepstakes. Not only did the BJP win an incredible 73 out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2014, it also went on to win an unprecedented 300+ seats in the Assembly elections held in 2017 – that too within months of demonetisation. That the BJP won such a stupendous mandate despite the fact that it neither had the organisational heft nor a strong leadership can be safely attributed to the charisma of the Prime Minister.

The BJP would be desperately hoping that Modi can pull off something similar in Odisha, a state that remained largely unaffected by the Modi wave sweeping vast swathes in the country. Recent trends, including the outcome of the by-election in Bijepur and the election in Atabira and Hindol NACs, have proved that state level leaders of the BJP are unequal to the task of meeting the formidable challenge posed by Naveen Patnaik, still going strong after four successive terms. In these circumstances, Modi contesting from Odisha would prove to be real game changer for the party in the state.

Assuming that there is some basis to the speculation, the selection of Puri makes eminent political sense, just as Varanasi did in 2014. It is one of the holiest towns for Hindus and one of the four ‘dhams’ that also boasts of the Lord Jagannath temple, which is virtually synonymous with the Odia identity. Ahmedabad, the capital of the PM’s home state, is the only place that shares a long tradition of Rath Yatra with Puri.

It is, however, debatable whether the people of Odisha, steeped in the all-inclusive Jagannath culture, would be swayed by such religious symbolism. But BJP would be hoping that even if the religious symbolism doesn’t work, Modi’s charisma will.

If the Prime Minister does eventually contest from Puri, the impact will be felt far beyond the boundaries of this Lok Sabha seat, just as his decision to contest from Varanasi did in the last elections. The BJP would be hoping to make significant gains in coastal Odisha, which has been an impregnable fortress for the BJD in past elections, if the PM contests from Puri.

Talk of Modi contesting from Puri looks plausible because the BJP top leadership has made it clear that Odisha is a focus state for the party. It may be remembered that soon after the victory in Tripura, BJP president Amit Shah had said that the ‘golden period’ for the party would come only when it comes to power in West Bengal, Odisha and Kerala. Though Shah didn’t mention it, the party is also hoping to make some gains in Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where it won just five seats in 2014, to offset some of the losses it is expected to suffer in its traditional strongholds like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

There are two major reasons why Odisha is an important state in the BJP’s scheme of things for the next elections. First, it is one state where it was in power, though only in alliance with the BJD, for nine years from 2000. Second, the BJP has been making steady gains in the years since parting ways with the BJD in 2009. Though it doesn’t have too many Lok Sabha or Assembly seats to show for it, it has constantly increased its vote share in every election. Third, the Congress, for long the principal opposition party in the state, is in a shambles in the state, though there are some signs of a revival of sorts after Niranjan Patnaik took over as the PCC chief.

If the Congress does revive in time for the next elections, it can make things even more difficult for the BJP since BJD would be the obvious winner in a genuinely three-cornered contest.

Modi contesting from Puri thus is the only way the BJP can hope to make substantial gains, if not come to power, in the next election.

(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.)