Narendra Modi In Odisha Third Time In A Month: Can He Defeat BJD?

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has declared that he will remain equidistant from the BJP and the Congress.

Updated
Politics
5 min read
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh and Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan during a farmers’ rally in Bargarh district of Odisha on 21 February 2016. 
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Odisha is emerging as a key battleground state in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections due in a few months time. Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed public meeting in Bolangir on January 15. This is Modi’s third visit to Odisha in less than a month and it underlines the importance of the state in his scheme of things.

During his speech, the Prime Minister criticised the Naveen Patnaik-led Odisha government for not doing enough for the tribals in the state.

“Odisha got more than Rs 4,000 crore due to our decision to create the District Mineral Fund. But the state government wasn’t able to spend that money for the welfare of tribals,” he said.

Earlier this month, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik announced that the Biju Janata Dal would remain equidistant from both the BJP and the Congress.

PM Modi’s Strategic Visits

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited thrice in less than a month. On 24 December, he inaugurated the Indian Institute of Technology-Bhubaneswar campus at Aragul in Khorda district.

On January 5, PM Modi inaugurated a number of projects such as four-laning of the Rimuli-Koida and Koida-Rajmunda sections of National Highway 215 and the Singara-Binjabahal section of National Highway 6, and doubling of Naranpur-Basantpur and Chillikidara-Sagadapata railway lines. He also inaugurated the conservation work at the Rasikaray Temple and Haripurgarh fort in Mayurbhanj.

All the projects can be seen as an attempt to strengthen the BJP's prospects in Northern Odisha districts like Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Sundargarh. The BJP would need to sweep this area to do well in the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. Similarly, Modi's visit to the IIT-Bhubaneswar campus was also aimed at boosting the BJP's prospects in the capital city, where the party is hoping to gain especially after the induction of former IAS officer Aparajita Sarangi who made her name as the commissioner of the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation.

BJP’s Prospects

Odisha is crucial for the BJP as it is one of the few states where it can hope to make gains compared to its performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The party is comparing Odisha to Tripura, which it won in the 2018 Assembly elections. There are some similarities – CPI(M)'s Manik Sarkar became chief minister in 1998, Naveen Patnaik came to power in 2000. Both are soft-spoken but popular leaders who emphasised on pro-poor policies. And in both states, the Congress has witnessed a steady decline over the years.

Therefore, the BJP's hope is that like Tripura, two processes would bring it to power in Odisha – first, the complete shift of Opposition votes from the Congress to the BJP and second, some reduction in the vote share of the ruling party due to anti-incumbency and possible fatigue of having the same chief minister for nearly two decades.

There is some merit to this optimism. Like the CPI(M) in Tripura in Vidhan Sabha elections, the BJD's vote share has seldom been above 50 percent in either Lok Sabha or Assembly elections. Let's look at all the elections held since after the split between the BJD and BJP in 2009. The BJD's vote share has consistently been below 45 percent. Therefore, a complete consolidation of Opposition votes and a minor swing could make the BJD vulnerable.

Congress declines, BJP emerges as the Opposition

Much of the BJP's optimism stems from the results of the 2017 Zila Parishad elections in which it won 297 seats, a massive increase from the 36 seats it won in 2012. The BJD's tally reduced from 654 to 473 Zila Parishad seats. The Congress' tally shrunk from 128 Zila Parishad seats to just 60.

This was followed by the by-poll to the Bijepur seat in Bargarh district in 2018. It was a Congress seat but the party was reduced to a distant third in the by-poll. The Congress' vote share reduced from 32.2 percent to just 5.7 percent. On the other hand, the BJD's vote share increased from 31.9 percent to 57.1 percent and the BJP's vote share increased from 18.1 percent in 2014 to 33.9 percent in the 2018 by-poll. The Zila Parishad results and the Bijepur by-poll indicated that the BJP had upstaged the Congress as the main Opposition party in the state. However, the by-poll also showed that even the BJD had gained at the Congress' expense.

Two questions now arise: Has the Congress' vote share completely shifted to the BJP? And is there a swing away from the ruling BJD to the BJP?

Three surveys conducted over the past three months have three different projections. The C-Voter tracker from December 2018 predicts that the BJP has overtaken BJD in terms of vote share and is all set to sweep the state in the Lok Sabha elections. The survey predicts that much of the BJP's gains are coming from the BJD and not the Congress, which has retained much of its vote share since 2014.

On the other hand, the CNX survey estimates that the BJP is gaining almost entirely at the expense of the Congress while the BJD is retaining its vote share of 44 percent from 2014. The VDP Associates survey estimate is somewhere in between – it says that the BJP's vote share is increasing from 21.9 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to about 35 percent, but it is still behind the BJD at 39 percent.

In terms of seats, the C-Voter survey predicts 15 seats for the BJP and six for the BJD, the CNX survey predicts almost the reverse – 16 for the BJD and five for the BJP. And according to VDP Associates, BJD will get 12 seats, down from 20 in 2014 and the BJP will get nine, a gain of eight seats from the previous Lok Sabha elections.

All three surveys are unanimous on three aspects:

First, the Congress is drawing a blank in Odisha in the Lok Sabha polls but its vote share isn't capitulating the way it did in Tripura.

Second, the BJP is gaining but the quantum of gains ranges from four seats predicted by CNX to 14 seats predicted by C-Voter.

Third, the BJD is suffering some losses. But the extent ranges from four seats predicted by CNX to 14 seats predicted by C-Voter.

A complete Congress implosion seems unlikely. In fact, the party seems to be partially reviving under the leadership of Niranjan Patnaik. The entry of independent MLA George Tirkey is expected to help the party in some Adivasi dominated seats in Sundargarh district.

Is Split-Voting A Possibility?

Since the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections will be held simultaneously in Odisha, there is a possibility that voters might put their faith in Naveen Patnaik for the state and Narendra Modi at the Centre. This is largely due to the fact that both the leaders continue to enjoy a high degree of popularity.

Some say this could lead to split-voting by a few voters – who might vote for BJP for the Centre and BJD for the state. This took place in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as well, but to a limited extent. Here are eight seats where the BJP did substantially better in the Lok Sabha polls compared to the Assembly polls even though they were held simultaneously. In some cases the BJP had a lesser vote share in the Assembly elections due to the presence of independent candidates.

Interestingly, most of these seats are in areas PM Modi is focussing on in his recent visits to the state – Northern and Western Odisha, Bhubaneswar and Puri.

There is also speculation that he will contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Puri, given the religious importance of the city as well as the need to boost the BJP's prospects in a key state.

The party's chances in Puri have been boosted by the entry of former BJD MLA from Satyabadi (that falls under Puri Lok Sabha seat) Ramaranjan Baliarsingh.

With the BJP expected to lose seats in states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, Odisha could be a state where the party could partly make up for its losses.

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