The results of the Bijepur by-polls in Odisha clearly suggest that the contest in 2019 in the state will be between Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). In the by-polls, BJD candidate won handsomely, partly thanks to the sympathy factor. BJP finished runner up while Congress received a paltry 5% vote share. BJP is now the main opposition to BJD in Odisha. The party has a set an ambitious target to win 120+ seats in the state and wrest power from Naveen Patnaik in 2019. The North East win has given the momentum to BJP’s mission. The party is confident that Narendra Modi’s popularity coupled with anti-incumbency against BJP rule will help it pull off a win in the state.
BJP’s improving performance in by-polls & municipal polls
BJP bagged 1 Lok Sabha seat in 2014 while Congress drew a blank. In by-poll for Kandhamal Lok Sabha seat, BJP emerged as the runner up overtaking the Congress candidate. In municipal elections in 2017, BJP received almost twice the vote share of Congress. While its tally jumped 8 times from 36 to 306 seats, its vote share nearly doubled from 18% to 33%. And recently, in Bijepur by-poll in 2018, Congress was pushed to 3rd spot. Extrapolating the municipal results to assembly constituencies, BJP is currently leading in 53, BJD in 80 and Congress in 11 seats as per my calculations. Still 1 year for BJP to add another 20 odd seats in its kitty and gain majority.
BJP’s track record against long tenor governments
Skeptics would laugh at BJP’s bold claim of bagging 120+ seats. How can a party with just 10 MLAs get majority in a house strength of 147? BJP’s election machinery has carried such mission impossible in many states in last four years, like in Assam, Haryana, Manipur, UP, Tripura and Nagaland. It current tally in these states is between 8-12 times its previous strength. The commonality with Odisha is that all these performances of BJP were against long lasting 10-20 years incumbent governments.
Note: In all states except UP, a single party governed for the years mentioned in the graph In UP, BJP was out of power since 2002 and the state witnessed 1 BSP and 2 SP Chief Ministerial terms.
Parallels with the Tripura victory
Odisha shares a few similarities with Tripura – long tenor of incumbent, poor economic track record, clean image of Naveen (like Manik Sarkar) but corrupt bureaucracy and party leadership. By the time polls take place Naveen would have been ruling the state for almost 20 years. It is natural to develop strong anti-incumbency against long serving Chief Ministers. Till now TINA factor helped BJD. BJP was part of its coalition government till 2009, preventing party from forming its own base in the state. The state is economically backward despite being rich in mineral resources. Per capita income of Odisha is 29% below national average. 33% of people of the state are below poverty line versus national average of 22%.
While Naveen has a non-corruptible image, it can’t be said about his party ministers. The Rs. 60,000 crore mining scam is one of the biggest allegations against his government. He has replaced as many as 26 ministers during his entire tenure, acknowledging some sort of wrong doing. Naveen in many ways is similar to Modi. He is single and people feel that he has no incentive for indulging in corruption. This pits Naveen against Modi in a Presidential style elections and this is where BJP gets an upper hand.
State elections scheduled with Lok Sabha give BJP an egde
The state elections are likely to be held together with Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Naveen has supported One Nation One Poll concept and even if Lok Sabha elections are pushed ahead and held together with Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh, Odisha could agree to preponing. The Modi factor which is still strong and received a big boost after NE victory may just tilt the scale in favour of BJP. The slogan ‘same government in the center and in the state will lead to better development’, may work for BJP. Central and state elections at the same time also compensate for BJP’s weakness of not having a tall local leader of stature to match Naveen.
Decline of Congress and Frequent Changes in State Leadership
Congress party’s graph has been steadily declining in the state since Naveen’s father J.B. Patnaik left the party in 1999. From 39% vote share in 1995 to 26% in 2014 state elections to record low of 18% in panchayat polls in 2017 and now 5.6% in Bijepur by-polls. It has changed its state leadership seven times during 2000-2014. As India steadily becomes Congress-mukt, it is highly likely that there will be an exodus of state leaders towards BJD and BJP, as people would jump off a sinking ship. The BJP has captured most of this decline in vote share as detailed below in the graph.
Lack of second rung leadership in BJD & Infighting within party
Naveen is still considered as an outsider in the state, his ‘Odia’ is not so great, he doesn’t mingle with people and party workers, and he doesn’t have an approachable image. There is deputy commander of Naveen in the party. None of Naveen’s family members are interested in politics. This is not good for a dynasty based party and could lead to splits after Naveen retires like happened with TDP and AIADMK. He is believed to rely more on bureaucracy which has irked party leaders in the past. Recently Jay Panda, was suspended from the party for his alleged anti-party activities after an internal tussle. Many disgruntled BJD leaders have joined BJP, more expected to follow as polls approach.
Significant scope for making a dent in BJD’s anchor voting segments
BJP and BJD share the same voting blocks of upper caste and OBCs. While BJP got majority of these votes in other states in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, these stuck with BJD in Odisha (49% and 45% respectively). OBCs nationally have been flocking to Modi’s BJP (34%) while upper caste (56%) have moved en-masse from Congress to the party. BJP also received good tribal support nationally (38%), however couldn’t repeat same performance in Odisha (18%). BJP will push for expanding the base of its national anchor voting segments in the state and damage BJD’s prospects.
To conclude, it’s going to be an exciting contest in Odisha between Modi and Naveen babu in 2019, with Congress nowhere in the picture. While the clean image of Naveen and the legacy of his father would help BJD, BJP’s increasing clout in the state and well-oiled election machinery pose a serious threat.
This article was first published in Swarajya.