Naveen Patnaik's thumping return in Odisha is proof that refashioning of a veteran leader's image can bear electoral dividends
Naveen Patnaik did not appear to follow the agenda set by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), nationally or in the state. Instead, he launched a glitzy campaign which saw his photos plastered all over newspapers.
Patnaik’s approach to these elections was not fashioned overnight. Right up to 2017, the BJP in Odisha had been nipping at the BJD’s heels.
The BJP has left no stone unturned in critiquing Odisha’s chief minister, even raising questions over his financial integrity and questioning his development schemes.
If for the first two years of this term, Patnaik was fire-fighting the BJP, after late 2016 he was no longer adopting a defensive posture.
In the course of the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls in Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, who is set to be the chief minister for the fifth time, has shed his old image and crafted an entirely new one for himself.
Patnaik did not appear to follow the agenda set by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), nationally or in the state. Instead, he launched a glitzy campaign which saw his photos plastered all over newspapers. People of Odisha knew everything — where he travelled far and wide across the state, where he held meetings with party workers and rural residents and where he trumpeted his government’s wide array of social schemes.
Patnaik’s approach to these elections was not fashioned overnight. Right up to 2017, the BJP in Odisha had been nipping at the BJD’s heels. The saffron party’s surprise gains in the February 2017 rural polls possibly alerted him to the fact that 2019 would need preparations. He approached the elections with a tried and tested strategy: more support for women, the elderly and the poor, with programmes such as Peetha, Biju Yuva Vahini and Kalia.
Despite this, in most constituencies, the BJD and BJP ended up in a neck-to-neck race. BJD’s margins, which usually run into lakhs, declined. This, it can be gauged, will matter to BJD when the next urban polls roll around in 2020.
The BJP has left no stone unturned in critiquing Odisha’s chief minister, even raising questions over his financial integrity and questioning his development schemes. To this, Patnaik’s response was to meet voters directly and ask party members not to respond, either positively or negatively to BJP’s charges. Until 2017, his party had appeared to be affected by these allegations, but it changed course and the run up to the simultaneous polls saw BJP dig its heels into its own turf. This left the BJP with no choice but to battle Patnaik’s teams on the ground. These were teams that the BJD has recently revived and restructured, which were well-oiled and struck a line independent from all its rivals.
'A lesson for Congress'
There is a lesson in Patnaik’s strategy for the Congress party. The grand old party is no longer the key Opposition voice in the state’s politics. Unlike the national Congress, which sought to dent the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clean image, Patnaik has never tried to lead a campaign where opponents might question that he is Mr Clean. In BJD circles, that strategy was rejected for being an indirect capitulation to the BJP’s key poll promise of fighting corruption. Nor did Patnaik try to attack Modi personally. Throughout his campaign, instead, he seemed to be saying, "I’m all about development."
Struggling against ill health and pushing 73, Patnaik earned the moniker of a fighter in these polls. He toured virtually every part of the state, every Assembly constituency and Lok Sabha seat. In this way, Patnaik is quite like Modi — doing everything it takes to hold on to his constituencies and stretching himself to the limits, physically and emotionally.
There is also a lesson for the BJP in BJD’s victory. It could not foist upon Patnaik or his party a narrative of its own choosing. After this election, the charges of administrative malfeasance levelled against Patnaik by the BJP are sure to make relations between the two parties somewhat bitter. That, however, is a blip on the radar compared to what the Congress has come to be in Odisha. The BJP has bagged eight Lok Sabha seats, while it only had one in 2014. The Sundargarh seat was held by the BJP’s Jual Oram even in 2014, but the BJP has now bagged it with a hefty
margin of over 2.2 lakh, compared with 1.8 lakh in 2014.
With BJD having won 115 Assembly seats, compared to 117 in 2014, it has nonetheless gained a certain mental comfort against the BJP, which has taken its tally up from 18 to 24 seats. Here, too, the Congress has fallen far behind. In fact, it had won 16 seats in the 2014 Assembly polls, a fall of 11 seats with 25 percent of the popular votes falling in its share.
The Congress has formed the traditional opposition in Odisha, and not the BJP. This also explains Patnaik’s strategy of not countering the BJP directly beyond a point. For it is widely expected that when it comes to Assembly seats, the Congress is the one losing votes to the BJP. Naturally, the same tendency was expected to follow in the Lok Sabha seats — wherever the Congress is strong, the BJP gained.
Schemes speak for themselves
Patnaik also represents the salience of government schemes aimed at empowering people. He reserved 30 percent of the Assembly seats for women and jump-started a farm subsidy scheme that also includes landless farm labourers. When he realized that anti-incumbency could shake his party, he took hold of the narrative and set his own agenda. Even the more prosperous echelons of Odia society noted how their state played up events like the hockey World Cup, the Bhubaneswar film festival, and several others which had an array of film stars and other famous people in attendance.
If for the first two years of this term, Patnaik was fire-fighting the BJP, after late 2016 he was no longer adopting a defensive posture. For instance, while Odisha declined to implement the Centre’s health insurance scheme and went for its own version of it, Patnaik did not oppose the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government’s every single move in a similar fashion. Thereby, he is credited with having avoided open hostility with the Center, unlike, say, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
This time, many Odisha voters have cast their votes in the prime minister's name. The BJD had 20 of 21 MP seats in the previous election and has ended up with 12, a far lower tally. That said, at least ten visits were paid by Modi to Odisha during these elections. The results demonstrate that voters do not necessarily vote differently in Lok Sabha and Assembly polls.
This election had its share of star power and rising stars. Pramila Bisoi, a seventy-year-old barely-schooled woman who is a part of a self-help group nurtured during Patnaik’s time, will now go to the Lok Sabha, becoming the national face of the BJD’s grassroots work.
The BJP, apart from its traditional stronghold in western Odisha, has won Bargarh, a prestigious seat. BJP has also launched into coastal Odisha, winning Bhubaneswar by a 23,000 margin and Balasore by 11,000 votes. Sambit Patra, the BJP’s national spokesperson and well known television face, lost Puri by a narrow margin of 11,000.
Historically, Odisha’s politics has been all about the Congress and the anti-Congress wave, which has reflected in the rise of the Swatantra Party, the Janata Dal and the BJD too. This election is significant as it indicates that this tendency has changed. The saffron party is still far from a Tripura-style sweep that it had hoped for, but it has replaced the Congress as the only real rival of the BJD.
"It is nothing but daydreaming. No party including the BJP can come to power in Odisha as long as Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik remains BJD president," said Sudam Marndi, senior leader of the state's ruling party.
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