Odisha: Why BJP's good showing in local polls threatens Congress' survival
The results of the fifth and final phase of the Panchayat elections in Odisha will be declared on 25 February. The results of the previous phases clearly indicate that the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has emerged as a clear winner. The bigger story, though, is that the BJP has delivered a stellar performance in the coastal state, registering an improvement of 850% compared to the 2012 civic polls.
The rising clout of the BJP is a cause of concern for the BJD, which is ruling the state for the past 17 years. More so, the results are a wake up call for the Congress, whose political future in the state is at stake.
Startled by the results, BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik has asked his party leaders to take it as a signal and get reconnected with the people generally and grassroots workers of the party particularly.
If the situation is alarming for the BJD, it is even more serious for the Congress, which has been relegated to a distant third. With the saffron party seemingly rising as the main opposition party in the state, BJP leaders are calling for a Congress mukht Odisha. Political analysts say the writing is on the wall and the Congress alone is to be blamed for the mess it finds itself in the state.
Riven with severe infighting, the Congress's performance in the state has been deteriorating in both the assembly and general elections since 2004. In the 2004 assembly election, the party won 38 of the 147 seats with a vote percentage of 34.82%, which came down to 29.10% in 2009 and 25.71% in 2014. Similarly, in the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the party's vote share stood at 40.43%, which came down to 32.75% in 2009 and 26.38% in 2014.
Even in panchayat elections, the party is a severely diminished force now. “The party has changed four state presidents since 2011 and yet the infighting continues to hurt its prospects. The organisation has no control over its legislators and this factionalism in its ranks has led to Congress voters switching allegiance to the BJP, which is emerging as the main opposition party. If these issues are not addressed immediately, the possibility of the party being wiped out from the state cannot be ruled out,” said a Congress leader, requesting anonymity.
The leader went on to claim that the BJP winning 270 more seats this time as compared to 2012 is a major setback for his party. “With the saffron party emerging as a political force in Odisha, it is expected to give a tough fight to the BJD in the the Lok Sabha and assembly elections in 2019. Meanwhile, our leaders will continue to squabble amongst themselves which could lead to the Congress becoming irrelevant in state politics,” he added.
In October 2016, all 16 MLAs of the Congress had revolted against the state party chief Prasad Harichandan, leading to his removal. However, things have not improved under the new chief and there is still resentment among the legislators. Soon after the results were announced, Congress leaders explained how the civic polls were not taken seriously by their leadership, while the BJP's ran a high-pitched campaign.
A senior Congress leader blamed the poor performance on “fund crunch”, claiming that the party was able to give only Rs 20,000 to each candidate as compared to the BJP, which gave lakhs to each contestant. “We had no money to give to these candidates and that reflected in our campaign on the ground. If we had the resources we could have given BJP a tough fight and not lost as many seats,” he said.
In the run-up to the polls, the BJP's state unit had worked hard to strengthen its organisational base, and Arun Singh, the party's state in-charge, claimed that its membership rose from three lakh to 36 lakh. The Congress, on the other hand, has witnessed a significant drop as far as the membership drive is concerned and many of the party's traditional voters have switched over to the BJP. As a result, the tribal areas of Kalahandi, Mayurbhanj and Malkangiri, considered to be Congress strongholds, witnessed a near sweep by the BJP.
What apparently added to the Congress's misery is the growing popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Party leaders from the state grudgingly admit that demonetisation was quite popular among the locals. The Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojna, under which nine lakh households received subsidised cooking gas connections, also helped the BJP consolidate its voter base. Apparently, the scheme is even more popular than the various pro-poor schemes announced by the state's BJD government.
Given these circumstances, the Congress' political future in the state seems marked with uncertainty. The party needs to work on a strategy to revive its lost glory before the 2019 general and assembly elections. Else, the BJP could realise its goal of a Congress mukht Odisha.