Naveen Patnaik’s 5th Consecutive Win: What Explains His Success?

Naveen Patnaik has proved that anti-incumbency could be a ‘myth’ in the case of Odisha.

6 min read
Hindi Female

The results in Odisha in the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, has left political pundits and the state Opposition scratching their heads. The reason: Naveen Patnaik has turned conventional wisdom on its head, emerging victorious in an election that was easily the toughest he has fought in his stellar political career of over two decades.

Not only did he stop the BJP-Modi juggernaut from sweeping the state in (as it did in most parts of the country), Naveen Patnaik also turned ‘anti-incumbency’ logic on its head, by not just winning, but increasing the vote share of his party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), from 43.9 percent to 44.7 percent in the assembly election.


Support For BJD In Odisha Is Certainly Not Dwindling

With this, the BJD has maintained its unique record of adding to its vote share in every election since it first came to power in Odisha in 2000, and has proved that ‘anti-incumbency’ is a ‘myth’ in Odisha (at least for now), conjured up by arm-chair know-it-alls who either fail to see the ground reality, or deliberately shut their eyes to it.

Like ostriches burying their heads in the sand, these people would also perhaps ignore the 0.8 percent rise in the BJD’s vote share in the assembly election and latch on to the 2 percent fall in its share in the Lok Sabha election as ‘proof’ that the BJD support base is shrinking. But nothing could be farther from truth. Had the support for BJD been dwindling, it would have been reflected in the assembly results as well.

What rivals and critics perhaps mistook for ‘anti-incumbency’ actually had nothing to do with Naveen Patnaik, his party or the government, but localised disenchantment against party MPs and MLAs in some constituencies.

The BJD supremo saw these signs early and initiated remedial measures by looking for fresh, new faces in these constituencies, about a year ago. When Naveen Patnaik replaced party candidates in as many as 17 of the 21 Lok Sabha and 49 assembly seats, the critics said the move would boomerang. But the results proved that Patnaik knew what he was doing: 10 out of the 17 new faces in the Lok Sabha elections fray, and 34 of the 49 in the assembly elections, won.


What Worked for BJD?

At the top of the list of factors that allowed the BJD to hold sway for an unprecedented fifth successive term, was Naveen himself. Like Narendra Modi for the BJP, Naveen Patnaik was the mascot, principal vote-gatherer and strategist-in-chief for his party. The BJD fought the twin election almost entirely in his name, and the strategy, as the results show, has paid it rich dividends.

The BJD supremo’s ‘connect’ with the electorate was backed by a super-efficient party organisation working on ground like a well-oiled machine. 

Together with the enormous goodwill created by a plethora of welfare measures that covered the poorer and weaker sections, youth and women, these two factors made for an unbeatable combination. These welfare measures, covering nearly 80 percent of the population, have earned the BJD the lasting loyalty of the people of Odisha.


‘Poaching’ Pays, Naveen Patnaik Knows This

“If you can’t beat them, join them,” they say. But Naveen Patnaik tweaked this adage a bit and invited those he could not beat, to join his party. And given the fact that a BJD ticket is the most sought after in Odisha’s political bazaar, there were very few who could say ‘No’. A case in point is Naba Das, two-time MLA from Jharsuguda, who joined the BJD in January this year. Under his leadership, the Congress had won eight of the nine zila parishad seats in Jahrsuguda district in the panchayat elections in February 2017, even as his party performed miserably in the rest of the state.

Naveen was quick to see the writing on the wall and initiated moves to rope in Das.

He countered the inevitable fallout of recruiting the Congress strongman by shifting former Assembly Speaker Kishore Mohanty, the man Das defeated in the last two elections, to Brajarajnagar where he, in turn, defeated sitting MLA Radharani Panda of the BJP.

BJP recruit Raghunandan Das defeated veteran Biju-era leader Dr Damodar Rout, who was expelled by Naveen for ‘anti-party’ activities a few months before the election, in Ersama-Balikuda. Among the other imports from the saffron party who won on BJD tickets this time were Bhagirathi Sethi in Anandpur, Tushar Kanti Behera in Kakatpur, Rajkishore Das in Morada and Jitu Mitra in Khurda while Pradip Dishari, who was brought in from the Congress in the eve of the election, won in Lanjigarh.


What BJP Can Take Heart In

The BJP is understandably disappointed with the outcome of the election. Buoyed by the exit polls projections, which had suggested that it would win a majority of the Lok Sabha seats in Odisha, the party had boasted that it would form the next government. But the result not only hinders its vaulting ambitions, but leaves it with just 23 seats in the assembly, less than one-third of the number (74) needed for a majority in the 147-member House.

But the saffron party need not be despondent. The party can take heart in the fact that it won as many as 8 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats, no mean achievement for a party that won just 1 in 2014 (Jual Oram in Sundargarh).

Even more heartening for the BJP is the fact that it increased its vote share from 21.88 percent to 38.37 percent, an incredible 16.49 percent jump in the Lok Sabha election, and from 17.99 percent to 32.50 percent in the assembly election, another huge leap of 14.51 percent.


Congress Hits Nadir

Much of the gains for the BJP have come at the expense of the Congress, which has hit rock-bottom this election. The party not only maintained its dubious record of shedding part of its vote share in every single election, but actually did ‘better’ in this respect this time, bringing down its vote share from 26.38 percent in 2014 to just 13.79 percent in the Lok Sabha elections, and from 25.71 percent to just 16.10 percent in the assembly elections.

As a result, it has been reduced to a single digit presence in the assembly for the first time since 1990 when the Janata Dal (under Biju Patnaik) won 123 out of the 147 seats, a feat even his far-more-successful son has not been able to match. Just about the only saving grace for the Congress party in Odisha was the unexpected victory of Saptagiri Ulaka in the Koraput Lok Sabha constituency.


What Lies Ahead For BJD & Naveen Patnaik

After the election results, all eyes are now on the nature of the relations between the BJD and the BJP. During the campaign last month, Naveen Patnaik had hedged his bets saying his party would play a ‘key role’ in the formation of the next government at the Centre. His statement was obviously based on the calculation that no party or coalition would get a majority on its own. But the stunning victory of the BJB-led NDA in the parliamentary polls has robbed him of that privilege.

The BJD boss had also kept all the warring contenders – the NDA, the UPA and the Federal Front – on tenterhooks, promising to back the side that offered the ‘best deal’ to Odisha. But with only one side in a position to offer a deal, he has to find a way of doing business with the Modi government at the Centre. And that should not be a problem for the astute politician, who has had the best of relations with the Congress high command during the UPA years, and with the BJP leadership in the last five years, even as his party was at loggerheads with the two national parties at  the state level.

(The writer is a senior Bhubaneswar-based journalist and has reported for the BBC for the last twenty years. He tweets @geminianguddu. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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