Lessons From Brajarajnagar Byelection

The Biju Janata Dal has registered a landslide victory in the by-election for Brajarajnagar Assembly constituency.

BJD candidate Alaka Mohanty, a greenhorn, has defeated two seasoned politicians – former minister Kishore Patel of Congress and former Brajarajnagar MLA Radharani Panda of Bharatiya Janata Party. Mohanty got 93,953 votes as against Patel’s 27,831 and Panda’s 22,630.

The results have been on the expected line, except that Patel has pushed Panda to third position. Clearly, Patel and Panda were competing more with each other for the second spot instead of giving a tough fight to Mohanty, the widow of former speaker and sitting MLA Kishore Mohanty whose untimely death necessitated the by-election.

Alaka Mohanty’s massive win is not a big deal, though; the BJD’s well-oiled election machinery was at her disposal. The two main takeaways from the by-election, however, are: Lost opportunities for the revival of the Congress and decimation of the BJP.

Brajarajnagar constituency was created in 1961. Veteran Communist Party of India leader Prasanna Panda and Congress leader and former minister Upendra Dixit were main rivals for a long time. Prasanna Panda represented Brajarajnagar six times, in 1961, 1967, 1974, 1985, 1990 and 1995, while Dixit won the seat thrice, in 1971, 1977 and 1980.

After Prasanna Panda’s death, Congress’ Anup Sai won the seat for three consecutive times in 2000, 2004 and 2009 defeating BJD-BJP coalition’s Suresh Pujari, convincingly in the first and by slender margins in the subsequent two contests. In the first two elections, Radharani Panda, then a BJD member, contested as an Independent garnering sizable votes and resultantly ensuring Pujari’s defeat.

Nonetheless, despite his repeated defeat, Pujari had been able to put up a solid organisation and vote base for the BJP, which was almost negligible in Brajarajnagar before 2000. During 2014 general elections, when Pujari was asked to contest for Sambalpur Lok Sabha constituency, Radharani Panda contested as a BJP candidate in Brajarajnagar Assembly seat and defeated Sai by 6,790 votes. She succeeded due to the combined factor of the BJP organisation and vote base as well as her personal vote share as an active political activist.

But, it seems, she could not hold on to her hard-earned victory to play a long innings. In the 2019 elections, Kishore Mohanty defeated her by 11,999.

Radharani Panda must introspect why she finished a poor third in a constituency she represented between 2014 and 2019. It’s also introspection time for the BJP why its base has crumbled and the BJD has taken it over.

On the other side, Congressmen in the state need not get elated about Patel’s elevation to the second position, which is behind Alaka Mohanty’s first by miles and closer to Radharani Panda’s third. It may well have to do more with Radharani Panda’s loss of trust among voters than his own efforts.

Patel had contested for Brajarajnagar in 2014 and finished third by bagging 38,175 votes. This time in the by-election, he got much less though finishing second.

After his loss in 2014, Patel had the chance to focus on people’s issues in the area and rebuild Congress organisation. Many vital issues of the area demand politicians’ attention. One of the main issues is the utter neglect of the administration in granting permanent land rights instead of lease lands to thousands of Hirakud Dam displaced people. But he is not known to be seen taking up people’s causes in the area thereafter.

The by-election, in fact, had offered the Congress an opportunity to regain lost ground – physically in Brajarajnagar and psychologically across Odisha. The party could probably have done better by fielding a younger leader instead of Patel who is past his 70s.

Brajarajnagar is known for leaders like Prasanna Panda and Dixit. Notwithstanding the electoral results of the by-election, the constituency seems to be without a strong leader to raise people’s issues at the moment.

Will Alaka Mohanty, a housewife till recently, eventually transform into a good leader or will she become a stopgap arrangement between elections?

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