As Rural Odisha Votes BJD Fights The Enemy Within

Bhubaneswar: As rural Odisha readies to vote in the first phase of three-tier panchayat elections on Wednesday, the biggest challenge before the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is to effectively manage the enemy within: rebels who have entered the fray and, more importantly, silent players who are sabotaging the prospects of official candidates while masquerading as disciplined party leaders and workers.

While the BJD, despite party president and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik not campaigning (he finished his statewide tour in the run-up to the elections by launching Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana smart health cards in most district headquarters), is seen as the clear favourite at the five-phase village hustings, party leaders admit it’s the rebels and silent dissidents who could at some places tilt the scales against the regional party. This could by default primarily benefit the BJP, the principal Opposition party in Odisha, and the Congress in a lesser way.

Ever since Naveen came to power in the state in March 2000, the BJD has continued to grow stronger and emerge victorious in election after election. And the panchayat polls have been no exception. In 2002 and 2007 polls, the BJD and the BJP shared seats and engaged in “friendly fights” as they were in an alliance government, with the Congress seen as the “common enemy”. In 2002, BJD won 291 Zilla Parishad (ZP) seats and headed 12 ZPs; it increased to 345 seats and 15 ZPs five years later. However, in the same period the BJP’s tally dropped from 183 seats and seven ZPs to 129 seats and two ZPs. The Congress’ presence marginally grew from 283 seats and 10 ZPs in 2002 to 303 seats and 11 ZPs in 2007.

The dynamics changed in 2012 with the BJP, embittered over the manner in which the BJD dumped it ahead of the 2009 general elections, seemingly in disarray. Being in the Opposition for over a decade, the Congress too had started to lose steam notwithstanding the fact that the Hand party was in power at the Centre. This helped BJD’s cause and with Naveen, at the peak of his popularity, campaigning for party nominees the regional party registered its best-ever show: 651 seats and 28 ZPs. The BJP ended up with a paltry 36 seats while the Congress (then headed by Niranjan Patnaik in his first stint as OPCC president) settled for 128 seats and two ZPs.

The 2017 story was different. The BJP was no longer a ‘friend’ and had become a strong ‘foe’. And with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister the saffron party posed its first real challenge to Naveen & Co, winning an impressive 297 seats and grabbing eight ZPs to rank as party No. 2 in the state. The BJD having bagged 476 seats and with control over 19 ZPs was jolted but still remained the numero uno. The Congress finished a distant third, garnering 60 seats and three ZPs.

The 2022 election has thrown up interesting equations, with the BJD suffering from a problem of plenty and unable to satisfy all its aspirants. This has resulted for the regional party in a piquant situation: it has to spend as much energy and resources to quell dissension and prevent desertions as it has to in fighting the rival BJP and the Congress. Indeed, at several places, especially for sarpanch and panchayat samiti member, it is a BJD-versus-BJD duel. At some places BJD rebels have embraced the saffron brigade and are contesting the ZP polls (fought on party symbols) on BJP ticket. Unlike 2017, although the BJP’s bellicosity and intent to up the ante is conspicuously missing at some places this time, the national party stands to gain precisely because of the BJD’s internal wrangling in several districts. The Niranjan Patnaik-led Odisha Congress, a much lesser force now compared to what it was a decade or two ago, is seemingly content in being a serious contender only in select districts, being reduced to the third position in other parts of the state.

Whatever the results, one thing poll pundits should keenly have their eyes on is how the voter would behave: whether they will exercise their franchise along party lines or go for ‘good candidates’ as grassroots democracy evolves in this part of the world amid murky politicking.

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