Op-Ed: Will Rahul Visit Boost Congress Prospects in Odisha?

Bhubaneswar: On his third visit to the state in the last two months, Congress president Rahul Gandhi did not put a foot wrong in Jeypore, the political and commercial nerve centre of undivided Koraput district, on the International Women’s Day. The dimple cheeked Gandhi scion first unleashed a charm offensive wowing young girls and women at the town’s Sibasai Kalyan Mandap where he fielded questions from them with his usual candour. Then he delivered a perfect election speech during the course of which he tore into both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

Aware of the significance of the day and the fact that women constitute a sizeable vote-bank in Odisha, he plied them with promises that ranged from getting the women’s reservation bill passed in the Parliament to adopting a policy of zero tolerance towards crime against them. He also committed himself to ensuring free education for women, especially those from backward classes, if his party was voted to power.

The tone and tenor of the speech made it clear that he was hopeful of Congress doing well in the state. His hopes apparently stem from the party’s recent victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where it dislodged powerful BJP governments. Rahul has also made a deft political move by inducting his sister, Priyanka into the party formally and making her a general secretary, currently in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh. This has boosted the morale of party workers across the country.

However, ground reality for the Congress in Odisha is vastly different from states like UP where, despite its downslide in the last two decades, it can rely on its organisational strength and the charisma of the Gandhis to retrieve the lost ground. It is this confidence which has made the party ignore the snub from Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayavati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the foes-turned-allies, and declare that it would contest all the seats in UP.

But Odisha is a different ball game altogether. Here the Congress, which has shown a curious tendency to shoot itself in the foot, lacks the kind of organisational strength required to win an election. More significantly its tribal base, which used to contribute significantly to its electoral victories, has been shrinking.

Results of the last panchayat polls, held in 2017, were a major embarrassment for the party which found itself placed third behind the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) respectively. The BJP, taking advantage of the decline of Congress, made major gains in the countryside. Its Zilla Parishad tally went up to 297 from a meagre 36 in 2012.

The panchayat poll outcome hit the morale of party leaders so badly that they lost the appetite for a fight with the ruling party. Even senior Congress leaders appeared reluctant to take on the BJD both within and outside the state assembly. The result was obvious. It started conceding political space to the BJP which today seems to have effectively replaced it as the main opposition party in the state despite the fact that Congress has more MLAs in the assembly.

To make things worse Congress’s factional fights in the state have exacerbated resulting in tremendous embarrassment for the leadership. In Koraput district itself the party is badly divided with Jeypore MLA, Tara Prasad Bahinipati not getting along well with most other Congress leaders in the region. It was this intra-party feud in Koraput that prompted Koraput MLA, Krushna Chandra Sagaria to quit and join the Bahujan Samaj Party even though Mayavati’s party has only a notional presence in the state.

Congress suffered a double whammy sometime ago when two of its powerful MLAs—Naba Kishore Das and Jogesh Singh—resigned and joined the BJD. Neither Pradesh Congress Committee president Niranjan Patnaik nor any of the AICC leaders deputed by Rahul Gandhi to look after Odisha affairs have been able to stem the rising tide of factionalism in the party. And unless that happens, Rahul’s hope of Congress doing well in the state will remain mere hope.

(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)