Op-Ed: Will Naveen’s Western Odisha Gamble Pay Off ?

Bhubaneswar: For the first time in his political career chief minister, Naveen Patnaik has decided to contest from two seats simultaneously—Hinjili, his traditional seat in Ganjam district, and Bijepur in western Odisha’s Bargarh district. His candidature from Bargarh, a decision taken apparently in deference to the wishes of BJD leaders from the western belt, constitutes an interesting political gambit.

Hinjili, as we all know, has been faithful to him since he first contested the assembly elections from there in 2000. He has been winning the seat with impressive margins every time, his last victory margin being a whopping 76,586 votes. Almost all his opponents in 2014 lost their security deposits.

Contesting from Ganjam also has other advantages for him. First and foremost, the politically sensitive district, which was home to his ancestors, has for long been considered part of both coastal and southern Odisha and, as such, exercises political influence on both the regions. Political hegemony over Ganjam, thus, has a symbolic importance for any political party.

Patnaik himself has been partial to Ganjam to the extent that in the final lap of his fourth term he picked up three cabinet ministers from the district—Surjya Narayan Patro, Bikram Kesari Arukh and Usha Devi- a distinction no other region of the state enjoyed.  He has also nurtured Hinjili with great care.

What political imperatives have then made him enter the fray simultaneously from Bijepur in western Odisha? To understand the significance of the move one must keep in mind that his candidature from a western Odisha seat would be symbolic of a regional power shift which is likely to turn the voters of the area, fed on anti-coast sentiments for decades and currently in a hostile mood, thanks to the continuing agitation for the establishment of a separate High Court bench, in favour of Biju Janata Dal (BJD).

This is of crucial importance to the party which is desperate to check the growth of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the vast western Odisha belt comprising five Lok Sabha and 37 assembly constituencies. BJP had made significant gains in Bargarh, Bolangir, Kalahandi, Sambalpur and Sundergarh, the districts representing the five Lok Sabha constituencies of the region, in the 2017 panchyayat elections when the party won a record 297 zila parishad seats against the 36 it had bagged in 2012 rural polls.

The saffron party was the biggest gainer in those elections even though BJD had emerged as the single largest party with 473 seats. The ruling party’s zila parishad tally had dropped significantly compared to the 651 seats it had won in 2012. Congress had finished a poor third with just 60 seats.

The 2017 panchayat elections, thus, marked a political watershed for the BJP while setting the alarm bells ringing in the BJD which suddenly appeared to have become unsure of its base in western Odisha with a saffron wave sweeping the region. The BJP won 33 out of the 36 zila parishad seats at stake in Kalahandi district while it bagged 25 out of 34 in Bargarh and 23 out of 34 in Bolangir district. It also improved its tally in Sundergarh and Sambapur districts winning 13 zila parishad seats in each of them.

The party also improved its tally in some of the coastal districts but the results re-affirmed its authority in western Odisha, the region which accounts for eight of its 10 MLAs in the state assembly. Two years down the line the prospects of lotus blooming in this belt appear to be even brighter with Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s popularity at an all time high in the wake of Balakot airstrike.

This seems to have unnerved the ruling BJD which may try to counter the Modi effect in this politically sensitive region with the candidature of its supremo and its evergreen poll mascot, Naveen Patnaik. For Patnaik it would be an interesting gamble to take.

(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)