Encore Of 2019 Western Odisha Experiment: Why Naveen Patnaik Chose Kantabanji?

Bhubaneswar: Why Kantabanji? Naveen Patnaik’s decision to contest from this assembly seat in Balangir district, alongside his home turf Hinjili in Ganjam district, is seemingly a well-calibrated move considering that the ensuing twin elections in the state are expected to be the toughest yet for the Biju Janata Dal.

Will he succeed in his western Odisha mission? Why did he choose this seat for the purpose? Here are some plausible reasons:

Western Odisha Consolidation: With 5 Lok Sabha comprising 35 assembly segments, the western parts of Odisha can prove to be a stumbling block for the ruling BJD unless handled effectively. The Opposition, especially the BJP, has a good presence in the region and won all five LS seats, Kalahandi, Balangir, Sambalpur, Bargarh and Sundargarh, and eight assembly seats in 2019. The Congress’ support base in this area has dwindled over the years, but it still has substantial pockets of influence and pocketed four assembly (Khariar, Kantabanji, Balangir and Rajgangpur) seats from the western districts. Though BJD swept the 2022 panchayat and municipal polls, the regional party cannot take chances in 2024 in view of perceptible undercurrents against it in certain constituencies. Naveen’s entry, like it did in 2019, when he successfully fought from Bijepur and ensured the BJD got 22 MLAs from the belt, could force the rival parties to battle for every inch of the western poll pie.

Counter Narendra Modi Factor: Following inauguration of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya in January and the BJP’s aggressive Modi guarantee campaign, the western region, compared to other parts of Odisha, might get more impacted by the Prime Minister’s image. It might very well become a Narendra Modi-versus-Naveen Patnaik battle in certain areas, which had previously witnessed a split vote in favour of Modi for Lok Sabha and Naveen for Vidhan Sabha. For example, in 2019 BJP won the Bargarh parliamentary seat but BJD grabbed all seven assembly segments. The BJD might not mind a repeat of the 2019 show as its focus understandably is more on garnering assembly seats.

Kantabanji, A Strategic Seat: The geographical location of Kantabanji is such that it can prove strategic to influence voters in parts of Balangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi and Bargarh districts, impacting at least 9 assembly constituencies: Patnagarh, Titlagarh, Loisingha, Balangir, Bhawanipatna, Padampur, Khariar, Nuapada besides Kantabanji. In the process, it could help the BJD in 3 (Balangir, Kalahandi & Bargarh) LS seats. With BJD’s organizational secretary Pranab Prakash Das battling for Sambalpur LS, the Conch outfit wants to make every vote in the western region count, thereby making it difficult for the BJP and the Congress to make deep electoral inroads.

Vote Calculus In Kantabanji: This assembly segment saw a three-corner race in 2019 with Congress’ Santosh Singh Saluja emerging victorious by a slender margin of 128 votes ahead of BJP’s Laxman Bag. BJD’s Ajaya Kumar Das finished third. In the last five elections BJD won only once in 2014 with Haji Md Ayub Khan as its nominee. In 2004, Khan triumphed as an Independent. Saluja has represented Kantabanji in 1995, 2000, 2009 and 2019. Therefore, it cannot be considered a BJD bastion, which means Naveen’s strategy could be to give the message to his party’s rank and file that the real challenge lies in turning adversity into advantage. Besides, the constituency has the presence of too many communities including the presence of non-Odias, which could be galvanized in support of the BJD only through its trump card, Naveen.

Take On Opposition Biggies: Several of the Opposition bigwigs like Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan (Sambalpur parliamentary constituency), leader of Opposition Jayanarayan Mishra (Sambalpur assembly constituency), OPCC president Sarat Pattanayak (Nuapada AC), Congress Campaign Committee chief Bhakta Charan Das (Narla AC), BJP heavyweights K V Singhdeo and Sangeeta Singhdeo and former Leader of Opposition Pradipta Naik (Bhawanipatna AC) are in the fray from western Odisha. Congress veteran Narasingha Mishra’s son Samarendra, BJP ex-state president Basanta Panda’s son Abhinandan (Nuapada AC), Bhakta Das’s son Sagar (Bhawanipatna AC) are also vying from Kantabanji’s vicinity. Naveen’s seeking to represent the area in the assembly can upset the poll arithmetic of rivals.

Dilute Kosala Sentiments: Come elections and regional emotions fuelling a separate Kosala state demand get reignited. 2024 is no different. In recent times, Congress’ Balangir MP nominee and film star Manoj Mishra has played that card. Rise in Kosala sentiments obviously will work to BJD’s disadvantage. Naveen’s presence should not only weaken such sentiments but also force the proponents of statehood for Kosala do a rethink.

Put Brakes On Internal Bickering In BJD: Naveen’s foray into Kantabanji would make the local BJD leaders fall in line. A case in point is the factional feud between A U Singhdeo’s family and Tukuni Sahu in Balangir. This election, the BJD suffers from serious groupism and dissension issues, which if anyone can resolve is the BJD supremo. Else, the party might end up paying a heavy price.

Role Of Santosh Singh Saluja: Naveen joining the Kantabanji race could put incumbent MLA Saluja in a fix. Though in Congress, Saluja’s relatively good rapport with Naveen is known. Even in the assembly there have been occasions when Saluja has refused to walkout while his party colleagues would do so. That there has been speculation in recent weeks of Saluja quitting Congress and joining the BJD makes it amply clear that there is more to it than meets the eye.

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