BJP Vs BJD: Expect Strong Local Flavour To Campaign Pitch

Akshaya Mishra

Politics in Odisha is somewhat insular. Major currents of national politics hardly impact its existing dynamics.

The Left was a dominant political force in neighbouring West Bengal for decades. It didn’t have a spill-over effect in the state. When the Ram Mandir issue had the country in the thrall in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Odisha was largely indifferent to it. The political reaction to the nationwide commotion over the Mandal Commission report was lukewarm too. The politics of social justice is virtually non-existent in the state. Religion, caste and identity-centric politics don’t work here as in the rest of the country. Mass protests over issues are rare. Any analysis of electoral politics here with the yardstick applied elsewhere is likely to be uninformed and vacuous.

Will things be different this time? Unlikely. Parties making a bid for power in Odisha need to go local. Parliamentary elections may be a slightly different story though.

An aggressive BJP brings a distinct flavour to the Assembly elections, but its primary talking points, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindutva are national in tone and tenor. The local content in its election talk so far has not been strong, or at least not visible. It has not helped the state unit that the top leadership of the party has remained cordial with rival BJD’s top rung. Also, the long-drawn talk of an alliance may have confused the cadre and taken some sting out of its combativeness too.

So, how is the BJP placed at this point? Well, as election cards go, the BJD’s strategists appear to have planned and played it smart. They have spent considerable energy to blunt the BJP’s religion card. Aware of the possible impact of the grassroots outreach of the BJP and its Hindutva associates over the Ram Temple inauguration, they shifted focus to local temples sometime ago, allocating substantial funds for the development of religious places. The Rs 800-crore Srimandir Parikrama Prakalpa, the 75-metre heritage corridor around the shrine walls, was its showcase project. A day after inaugurating the project, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik launched the Shree Jagannath Express bus service to facilitate transportation of people from all districts of Odisha to the pilgrim town of Puri. To cut it short, in competitive religious politics, the BJD has proved itself a match to the BJP.

In all elections so far, both Assembly and General, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been the BJP’s unique selling point. But his appeal in the Assembly elections has been limited where the regional party has robust leadership and sound organisational strength. The BJD has a leader – personally blemishless and popular – to flaunt in Naveen to counter Modi, and it has kept its organisational machinery well-greased and battle-ready. Both leaders share good personal rapport, which appears to be holding back the state unit of the BJP from going all out against the Odisha Chief Minister. With its attack on the leadership missing the sting, it would be interesting to watch how it ramps up its assault in other areas to compensate for it.

The Odisha government has matched the Centre scheme for scheme besides bringing in its own ideas into its voter-pleasing manoeuvres. Now, if we go strictly by these parameters the BJD appears comfortably placed for the assembly elections. In the parliamentary polls, the BJP’s trump cards may hold good, helping it better its 2019 performance.

However, that’s not the whole picture. Elections are not won on drawing boards or bounty of sops. In the previous round of Assembly elections, Ashok Gehlot lost in Rajasthan despite unleashing a flurry of schemes and actually delivering reasonably well on the ground. And he is a leader of stature. Similar was the case of Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh. In Telangana, the BRS lost despite being on a freebie drive for most of its tenure.

So, populist schemes or freebies offer no guarantee that they would translate into votes. They might turn counterproductive if not implemented in due earnest and viewed with cynicism by the voters. This is where the BJP if it gets its focus right, can hit the BJD hard. A strong local flavour to its campaign with emphasis on secular issues backed by credible local candidates can work for it. It has done so in other states. The party must have strategised its moves along this line taking the cue from Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh results.

The BJP has kept its cards close to the chest so far. We might see them opening them during the campaigning. Coming back to where we started, elections in Odisha are not likely to deviate from character. The relative insularity will provide its own unique flavour.

(By arrangement with Perspective Bytes)

Akshaya Mishra

Senior Journalist & Writer based in New Delhi

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