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Odisha Oddity: BJP Banking on Cong Fans to Dent Naveen’s Dominance

A CSDS-Lokniti survey states that the Odisha government has the highest approval rating among all state governments.

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One of the peculiar aspects of this election in Odisha is that the BJP, which hopes to have stamped itself as the BJD’s primary rival come 23 May 2019, needs the votes of erstwhile Congress voters more than anyone else, in order to dent the dominance of Naveen Patnaik and his party.

But does Patnaik’s BJD face a stiff challenge from either the BJP or the Congress? Have 19 years of uninterrupted rule gathered enough anti-incumbency to push the BJD out of power and Naveen Patnaik out of his chief ministership, or could the party sweep the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls in the state yet again à la 2014?

Too caught up to read the story? Listen to it here:

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Strongest Challenger Kaun?

A CSDS-Lokniti survey states that the Odisha government has the highest approval rating among all state governments.
In Odisha, the BJP is fighting to establish itself as the primary challenger to the throne.
(Photo: Altered by The Quint)

The BJP is looking to ride on anti-incumbency against the Naveen Patnaik government, high unemployment in the state and the promise of bringing in more industries and investment in Odisha. But even those within the BJP admit they do not fancy their chances of overthrowing the BJD government just yet.

Instead, the party is fighting to establish itself as a significant and primary challenger to the throne, so that when anti-incumbency against the long-standing BJD regime eventually hits the roof, the BJP stands to be the major beneficiary. The party will also be looking to rake in more than just the solitary Lok Sabha seat it won in Odisha in 2014.

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  • In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in Odisha, BJD had polled 44.1% of the votes, winning 20 of the 21 parliamentary seats. The BJP won 21.5% of the vote share, winning the only other seat. At 26%, the Congress had a higher vote share than the BJP by 4.5 percentage points but returned empty-handed in the Lok Sabha.
  • In the Assembly polls, which were held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha election in 2014, the BJD (43.4% vote share) had won 117 seats of the 147-member State Assembly. The Congress had come in second with 16 seats (25.7% vote share) and the BJP finished third with only 10 MLAs (18% vote share).
Now, the BJP will hope its tally goes up by a few seats in the Lok Sabha and by enough in the Assembly for it to be a strong Opposition in the state. For this, they will have to tap into the Congress vote. Now though that may sound like an unusual statement in most parts of the country, here’s why that is the reality of Odisha politics today.
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The BJP-Congress Equation

Being the overwhelmingly dominant party in the state and in power for 19 years now, the BJD has a far stronger party structure and cadre base than either the Congress (which was last in power from 1995 to 2000) or the BJP.

Therefore today, most of those who vote for the Congress primarily do so because they have become disillusioned with the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD government. Votes for the Congress are therefore, essentially anti-BJD votes.

The same is largely true for the BJP in Odisha. Therefore, the anti-BJD votes get split between the Congress and the BJP. Now, given that the Congress presence in the state has got progressively weaker over the past decade (watch the decline of the blue bar in the graph above), a section of Congress voters may switch over to the BJP if they feel that the saffron party is the stronger challenger to Naveen Patnaik.

As a result, the BJP has spent considerable energy and resources this election season trying to convince voters that they are the real challengers to the BJD.

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Important reminders:

  • The BJD’s popularity had gone up from 38.9% to 43.4% of the vote share in the previous election, a massive figure in a three-cornered contest.
  • There is still a huge difference of 25 percentage points between the BJP and the BJD’s vote share.
  • Surveys show that Naveen Patnaik has managed to retain his popularity and high approval ratings over the past couple of years.
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Naveen’s Popularity Trumps the Modi Factor?

A CSDS-Lokniti survey states that the Odisha government has the highest approval rating among all state governments.
As many as 84% of the CSDS-Lokniti survey’s respondents in Odisha claim to be satisfied with the BJD government’s performance.
(Photo: IANS)

As per the CSDS-Lokniti Survey published in April 2019, the Odisha government has the highest approval rating among all state governments in the country. As many as 84% of respondents in Odisha claim to be satisfied with the BJD government’s performance. Naveen Patnaik’s welfare measures and a fractured two-party Opposition have clearly helped him combat anti-incumbency, even 19 years into his chief ministership.

Now, here’s the interesting thing. Among all the states, Odisha awarded the highest approval rating for the Modi government at the Centre. 73% of respondents in the state said that they were satisfied with the central government’s performance. The second-highest approval for the Modi government came from Haryana, but its 58% satisfaction was still far behind Odisha’s peak.

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The point to be noted however, is that Odisha’s approval for the BJD government in the state was still 11 percentage points higher than the BJP government at the Centre. It is yet another indicator that in the popularity contest between Naveen Patnaik and Narendra Modi in Odisha, the former is likely to trump the latter.

For example, when PM Modi addressed a rally in the capital city of Bhubaneswar on 16 April, the crowd in front of him thinned out, with hundreds of people leaving the venue even as he spoke.
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If Cong Retains Vote Share, BJD Sweep Likelier

Could the change in the Congress state leadership in April 2018 stymie the steady decline of the grand old party’s presence in Odisha? Niranjan Patnaik had replaced Prasad Harichandan at the helm of affairs then.

But if Niranjan Patnaik’s revival efforts can help the Congress perform as well as it had done last time around, it will only make a BJD sweep more likely. This is because the BJP will be hard-pressed to convert enough Naveen loyalists to make a difference in the number of seats won. And with a splitting of anti-BJD votes, the incumbents will rule the roost again.

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Lok Sabha Seats to Watch out for on Counting Day

Nabarangpur: This south Odisha constituency has been a traditional Congress bastion, with the party winning the Lok Sabha seat 10 consecutive times from 1962 to 1998. The BJP won here in 1999 and 2004, before the Congress won it back in 2009 with candidate Pradeep Majhi. As the incumbent in 2014 though, he lost by a very narrow margin of 2,042 votes, even as 44,408 votes were cast in favour of NOTA. The slipping away of the Congress stronghold was an indicator of the statewide rise in BJD’s popularity.

A CSDS-Lokniti survey states that the Odisha government has the highest approval rating among all state governments.
Fighting for Nabarangpur: Congress candidate Pradeep Majhi (left), BJD minister Ramesh Majhi (centre) and BJP’s Balabhadra Majhi (right).
(Photo: The Quint)

This time, the sitting MP Balabhadra Majhi has jumped ship to the BJP and is contesting on their ticket, while the BJD has fielded Cabinet minister Ramesh Majhi. Congress candidate Pradeep Majhi’s performance could prove to be indicative of whether the Congress has regained favour among its former supporters. However, another BJD win here would stamp the ruling party’s dominance.

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Bhubaneswar: It’s a battle of the bureaucrats in the capital city of Bhubaneswar, with a former Mumbai Police Commissioner taking on an Odisha cadre IAS officer who took voluntary retirement.

Arup Patnaik, former Mumbai top cop is contesting on a BJD ticket while Aparajita Sarangi, a former commissioner of the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) is fighting for the BJP.

Sarangi’s stint as BMC commissioner gives her an edge over Patnaik, who spent his career outside the state. Considered to be BJP’s strongest bet in Odisha in the Lok Sabha polls, a win for Sarangi in Bhubaneswar will be significant, not least because it will be an embarrassment for the BJD to have lost the Lok Sabha seat in the state capital.
A CSDS-Lokniti survey states that the Odisha government has the highest approval rating among all state governments.
Former IAS Aparajita Sarangi is considered to be BJP’s strongest bet in Odisha in the Lok Sabha polls.
(Photo: PTI)

A BJP win in Bhubaneswar though would likely not be indicative of the party’s performance across the state, as plenty of city residents admit that their vote for the BJP was based on Sarangi’s candidacy more than their opinion of either the party or Narendra Modi.

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Puri: In what could be a better contest to analyse the impact of the BJP this election, the temple town of Puri saw Sambit Patra challenge BJD’s sitting MP Pinaki Mishra. Patra’s campaign, much like the BJP’s elsewhere across the state, had two prongs. First and foremost was a hard-sell of nationalism, the airstrikes in Balakot, the importance of national security and the BJP’s prowess in tackling it. Second, was a focus on the unemployment levels in the state and the promise of increasing job opportunities and ushering in greater industrialisation.

Up against this plank is the BJD’s delivery of welfare measures and social schemes, combined with stronger booth management and party infrastructure. Sambit Patra, considered a star candidate by the national media due to his fame as arguably the BJP’s most vociferous and voluble spokesperson, has a tough contest. If he can eke out a victory on the plank of nationalism and unemployment, it will indicate that the space for the BJP has grown considerably in the state.

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Which Way Will BJD Swing Post Polls?

The BJP was part of the government in Odisha from 2000 to 2009, in an alliance with the BJD as the senior partner. In March 2009 though, right before the general election, Naveen Patnaik decided to call off the alliance and announced that the BJD would contest the polls alone.

Over the course of the Modi years, Patnaik has claimed to have been equidistant from the BJP and the Congress. But in the 2019 campaign, it is evident that Patnaik has faced more heat from a strong BJP campaign in Odisha than from the Congress. His criticism of Modi in recent weeks is testimony to that.

In early April, Patnaik went so far as to say that Modi does not deserve a second term in power and claimed that there had been no improvement on issues such as unemployment, irrigation and the condition of the railways.

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On 23 May, if the BJP does emerge as a prominent challenger in Odisha winning enough seats in the state Assembly to form a strong Opposition and outnumbering the Congress tally significantly, then Patnaik is unlikely to join hands with the NDA at the Centre. With his priorities set on retaining power in the state in the long term, he is unlikely to embrace his strongest challenger. A clean sweep in Odisha could change that dynamic though.

But alternatively, would he join the UPA or a larger alliance of Opposition parties in making a bid at forming the government? As of now, he says he has kept his options open, which includes a potential tie-up with the BJP as well.

So though the BJD is the clear front-runner in Odisha, the impact of the state’s 21 Lok Sabha seats on the national picture is far from certain. And for all we know, the BJP’s performance in the Assembly polls might have a significant bearing on the same.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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