Op-Ed: Congress In Odisha Stares At An Uncertain Future

Bhubaneswar: As elections draw closer the fluctuating fortunes of Congress, the main opposition party in the state, are being closely watched. The Grand Old party, which ruled the state for the longest period and was considered virtually invincible a few decades ago, seems to be in a freefall with both BJP and the Naveen Patnjaik-led Biju Janata Dal eager to capitalise on its decline.

Analysis of the 2017 panchayat election results reveals that BJP has been the biggest beneficiary of Congress’s downward spiral in the state. The saffron outfit’s record tally of 297 zila parishad seats in that crucial rural poll was mainly thanks to the transfer of a large chunk of Congress votes. The outcome had both surprised and thrilled BJP leaders as it marked a quantum leap for the party compared to the results of 2012 panchayat polls when it could manage to win just 36 zila parishad seats.

Eversince the BJP has become hopeful of lotus sprouting in Odisha with the body language of its leaders changing significantly. Ruling BJD leaders, on the other hand, remain equally confident about making political capital out of Congress’s fall arguing that voter behaviour in the general elections would be vastly different from the panchayat polls where local issues dominate. They appear convinced that the votes deviating from the Congress would fall into their kitty given BJD’s secular credentials and its unbeaten record in the state. “ Such voters always choose the strongest option,” goes the argument.

This is a pathetic scenario for the Congress which has been out of power in the state since 2000 when it was unseated by a BJP-BJD alliance led by Naveen Patnaik. Even the collapse of the alliance in 2009 failed to change Congress’s fortunes with BJD emerging at the top in the elections that followed. The Congress had to content itself with the tag of being the main opposition party. It was the same in 2014 elections.

Congress’s downhill journey in Odisha continues with a spate of resignations and expulsions jolting the party on the eve of the crucial general elections. While two powerful MLAs—Naba Kishore Das and Jogesh Singh—have resigned and joined the BJD, the leadership recently expelled former union minister, Srikant Jena in a bid to infuse discipline into the party. The move, however, has proved counter-productive with Jena acolyte and former Koraput MLA, Krushna Chandra Sagaria embarrassing the party by jumping onto Mayawati’s elephant even though Bahujan Samaj Party has only a notional presence in the state.

The truth is that ever since the departure of veteran JB Patnaik from the political scene, Congress has been like a rudderless ship in Odisha. Patnaik was controversy’s favourite child but there was no denying his charisma and his ability to carry all the factions of the party with him. It was this quality that set him apart from others.

Bereft of charisma the new generation of Congress leaders have failed to keep the party united which is evident from worsening factional fights, a phenomenon that could prove to be the undoing of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president, Niranjan Patnaik like some of his predecessors. In fact, the story of Patnaik’s immediate predecessor, Prasad Harichandan is quite instructive in this regard.

The young leader, who started out on a promising note with the slogan of Mun Nuhen Ame ( We, not I) in what was seen as a bid to evolve a collective leadership, quickly fell victim to a fierce intra-party feud with the chasm between PCC and the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) growing. Things came to a head soon with a powerful group of party MLAs declaring an open war against the PCC chief leaving the central leadership with no choice but to replace him with Patnaik, the unanimous choice of the rebel legislators.

Ironically now two of those MLAs who had backed Patnaik as the PCC chief have turned their backs on him and walked out of the party at a crucial juncture. Sinking deeper into the quagmire of factionalism the Congress in Odisha appears to be staring at an uncertain future.

(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)