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Odisha Assembly polls: Naveen Patnaik may still be state's biggest leader, but cakewalk for BJD is unlikely

The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, despite the heat and humidity, is on a marathon campaign for his party’s candidates. In all his poll meetings and roadshows, Patnaik continues to draw massive crowds. Everywhere, during his speeches, Patnaik asks, "Aaapan maane khushi to (are you all happy)?" The crowd goes berserk.

From his simple lifestyle, infectious smile to his laboured speeches, people of Odisha seem to love everything about Patnaik.

Personal popularity apart, his government’s series of pro-poor populist measures, active promotion to women-centric schemes, support to self-help groups and the BJD’s enviable grassroots level network have helped Patnaik reap rich electoral dividends in four successive polls.

Though he is likely to start his fifth innings as chief minister, it is believed the BJD will have to fight hard for each seat. In all probability, a cake walk, as witnessed in the past, is out of the question in 2019. Going by the poll narrative and the mood of the people, the Opposition, primarily the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), may upset the BJD, at least in many Lok Sabha seats.

“For the first time, Naveen is facing a serious challenge. It’s going to be a different election,” asserts senior journalist Prasanna Mohanty. According to him, it is nothing unusual to find large crowds in a four-time, serving chief minister’s election campaigns. But what’s not visible, apart from the undercurrents, is the silence of the voters. “Unlike in the past, this time, the voters are silent and that bothers the BJD,” he further says.

 Odisha Assembly polls: Naveen Patnaik may still be states biggest leader, but cakewalk for BJD is unlikely

File image of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. PTI

Congress’ state social media cell chairman Abhishek Mahananda doesn’t see any party securing a ‘clear mandate’ in 2019. “Results this time are going to be very dicey, and you will see no party having a clear mandate. There is a desperate competition between a party (BJD) that is in power and another (BJP) that wants to grab power. We are silently doing our work and the people are with us,” Mahananda, who is the Congress nominee for Cuttack Sadar Assembly seat, adds.

Without taking names of the BJD or its boss, BJP’s Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha candidate Aparajita Sarangi says she is yet to understand the meaning of the word ‘bastion’, commonly used to describe the BJD’s enviable grassroots level strength. “Where is the grave?” she asks. “That (the so called bastion) has been demolished and the reality is completely different today. I challenge all to visit with me the villages to see the truth,” declares the bureaucrat-turned politician.

Even some of the BJD’s senior leaders are skeptical and admit that the party’s confidence is missing. “The confidence with which the party entered the polls is missing now,” concedes a senior BJD leader.

Many believe Patnaik’s popularity had soared to unbeatable heights due to his attitude of zero tolerance to corruption. In the initial years of his rule, Patnaik would expel even senior leaders just on the basis of an allegation. But now, by giving political patronage (tickets) to those alleged to have links with the chit fund scam, or relatives of a few jailed leaders in the same scam, Patnaik has sent a different message to the people. “People still love the old Naveen who didn’t tolerate the corrupt or corruption. It’s difficult to say how they will view his change in stance,” thinks an Odisha politics watcher.

What also may not help the ruling party is the spate of poll violence cases in many of which its own workers, as alleged by the Opposition, are involved. Though in most such cases, both the BJD and BJP traded allegations on each other, the Congress remained silent.

However, as campaigning for the third phase poll in the state ended on 21 April — a week after BJP’s district level leader Manguli Jena was gunned down by unidentified gunmen at Khordha — Congress state unit president Niranjan Patnaik lodged an FIR against some BJD workers for an attack on him and a few of his associates in Anandpur of Keonjhar. On that day, both BJD and BJP had leveled charges against each other for attacks on their respective MLA candidates in Bhubaneswar.

Incidentally, the same night, an Election Commission of India team was attacked by six-time MLA, former minister and the BJD nominee for Pipli Assembly seat, Pradeep Maharathy, during a raid on his farmhouse, near Pipli in Puri district.

“Mr Maharathy himself rushed towards us and was seen directing his followers to attack us. We were severely beaten and had to flee from the spot,” Rabi Narayan Patra, the magistrate leading the flying squad told reporters at a hospital in Bhubaneswar. Subsequently, on the following day, much to the embarrassment of the BJD, Maharathy was arrested and sent to jail.

Though all political parties condemned the violent incidents, Congress and BJP attacked the ruling BJD. Mahananda says, “The BJD is a divided house. In every constituency, it’s facing challenges from its own rebel candidates. It is wary of the reality which it doesn’t want to face.”

BJP national secretary Suresh Pujari thinks the regional party’s workers are scared. The BJD never believed that ‘Naveen babu could be challenged’ and that’s why it’s angry. “No one is invincible in politics. Even Napoleon Bonaparte had been defeated in Waterloo. Indira Gandhi and Atalji had suffered defeats too,” Pujari, who is contesting for Bargarh Lok Sabha seat, says.

Senior BJD leader Tathagata Satpathy seemed concerned at the growing incidents of poll violence. “I am concerned at the high level of violence seen in the current election. A bad precedence is being set in a peace-loving state,” he says. “Whichever party, and this applies to all parties, is committing violence is only exposing its insecurity. Violence in elections shows a party’s extreme desperation,” adds the four-time Lok Sabha MP.

Satpathy also maintains that in democracy, the true bosses are the people and no one is invincible. “In democracy, nobody is invincible, whether it’s Mr Narendra Modi at Delhi or Mr Naveen Patnaik in Bhubaneswar. The true bosses are the people, not the leaders.”

For the time being, all eyes are on 23 May. Only the results will tell the truth.

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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 22:16:13 IST