Odisha Elections 2024: Can Congress Protect Its Last Citadel In Koraput?

Koraput: The die is cast for the first phase polls in Odisha, but will Congress be able to retain tribal-dominated Koraput, the only Lok Sabha seat it had won in the state in 2019 elections? Or, will Biju Janata Dal (BJD) manage to snatch it from the grand old party?

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Sitting MP Saptagiri Sankar Ulaka is facing an uphill task to save the seat with BJD candidate Kausalya Hikaka resorting to highly aggressive campaign to wrest the Congress bastion. Political configurations have undergone tremendous transformation in the last five years in the constituency and the impact will be seen in the upcoming polls. Party hopping by leaders and intra-party tussles may also spoil the pitch of contesting candidates.

Congress-BJD Fight

A straight fight is in the offing in Koraput where Congress’ Saptagiri is locked in an intense battle with his main rival Kaushalya from the ruling BJD in his bid to retain the Parliamentary seat. The 2019 election was a closely fought contest between Saptagiri and Kausalya. This time, the rapidly changing political dynamics and BJP’s growing presence in the constituency could add a twist. Reserved for scheduled tribe candidates, Koraput holds special importance as it was the only Lok Sabha seat won by Congress in the state in last elections. In his maiden electoral battle, Saptagiri tasted victory by defeating the BJD nominee by a slender margin of 3,613 votes.

A traditional Congress stronghold, Koraput Lok Sabha seat was represented by veteran tribal leader and former Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang nine times between 1972 and 2004. Gamang, who quit Congress in 2015 only to rejoin in January this year, was elected for the first time to the 5th Lok Sabha. Gamang’s wife, Hema, retained the seat for Congress in 1999 elections while her husband was the Chief Minister of Odisha for a brief period.

Historically, Congress held sway over this constituency except for twn years. In 2009, the seat went to BJD when Jayaram Pangi defeated Gamang. The regional party retained the seat in 2014 when its candidate Jhina defeated Gamang by a slender margin. However, Congress, despite its dismal performance in the general elections, recaptured the Koraput seat in 2019.

Assembly Equations

Since its formation in 1957, the Koraput parliamentary constituency has been a focal point of political activity, witnessing 17 general elections to date. It comprises seven key Assembly segments spread over Koraput and Rayagada districts. While Pottangi, Laxmipur, Jeypore, and Koraput are in Koraput district, Rayagada, Gunupur, and Bissam Cuttack come under Rayagada. While Congress enjoys a strong base in Koraput, Jeypore and Laxmipur, BJD seems to be ahead in Gunupur and Bissam Cuttack. The two parties are evenly placed in Pottangi and Rayagada.

In 2019 elections, the ruling BJD has won five of the seven Assembly seats, while Congress nominee Tara Prasad Bahinipati was elected from Jeypore and Makarand Muduli bagged Rayagada seat as an independent candidate. This time, Congress relies on its traditional vote bank and Saptagiri’s own performance and influence, while BJD is banking heavily on Chief Minister and party president Naveen Patnaik’s image and brand.

Challenge From Rebels

Resentment has been brewing in both Congress and BJD distribution of tickets as those denied nomination have been up in arms against their respective party candidates. Presence of rebels as independent candidates in the fray is likely to affect the poll outcome in Koraput.

Congress is facing rebellion from members of Gunupur, Bissam Cutttak and Rayagada assembly segments. Abinash Gamang, son of former Rayagada district Congress president Bijay Gamang, is contesting as an independent candidate. Similarly, senior Congress leader Bhaskar Jagaranga is in the fray as an independent for Gunupur assembly seat. After being denied ticket, Neelamadhab Ulaka has jumped into the fray as an independent candidate from Bissam Cuttack. This apart, veteran leaders Giridhar Gamang and Jayaram Pangi have been sulking after none of their family members got Congress ticket for the upcoming polls in the state.

The ruling BJD is also encountering similar internal tussles, mainly in Rayagada where factions led by Bhaskar Rao and Sudhir Das have been trying to dominate the scene. The regional party has asked senior leaders to oversee the assembly constituencies. Independent candidate Sucharita Majhi is likely to make a dent into BJD’s vote share in Rayagada.

Similarly, BJD’s Koraput Lok Sabha candidate Kausalya is also facing challenges following the defection of former MLA Kailash Kulesika to BJP. Kulesika, who is BJP nominee for Laxmipur assembly seat this time, poses a major threat to the regional party.

Role Of BJP Votes

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has never registered its victory in Koraput Lok Sabha seat. In 2019 elections, BJP nominee Jayaram Pangi had polled more than two lakh votes. The saffron party has fielded Kaliram Majhi in Koraput this time. Kaliram had earlier contested Assembly elections and faced defeat. While BJP lacks a strong organisational base in Koraput, the votes that Kaliram will bag would definitely play a significant role in deciding the final outcome of the ensuing election in the constituency.

The saffron party which secured about nine per cent votes in 2014 elections improved it to over 19 per cent in 2019. It will seek to improve further this time. Top BJP leaders, including Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, have also campaigned in the constituency to garner support for Kaliram.

Survival Battle

For Congress, retaining Koraput is essential as losing this seat would mean the grand old party’s virtual wipeout from Odisha’s political landscape. BJP is also aware that retaining Koraput is a matter of prestige for Congress. Therefore, the Naveen Patnaik-led regional party keen to see the defeat of Congress at all costs.

Though outgoing MP Saptagiri is armed with a strong track record of actively engaging in parliamentary debates and voicing constituents’ concerns, observers feel that he is virtually fighting a solo battle while relying on the traditional Congress votes. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who was scheduled to visit the constituency and address an election rally at Rayagada early this month to bolster the party’s prospects, cancelled the programme at the eleventh hour. He addressed the Congress meeting on virtual mode as he had to file nomination in Rae Barelii that day. Observers feel that it could have an adverse impact.

Unfazed by the aggressive postures of BD, Saptagiri remains confident, emphasising his grassroots approach and connection with the people, banking on Koraput’s historical allegiance to Congress.

He is optimistic about retaining the seat and claims that he has done a lot for the development of Koraput in the last five years. He said he has been telling people about his report card for the last 5 years. “I have ensured installation of 1,482 mobile towers, an aluminium refinery at Kansariguda, Jepypore airport, National Highway-326 by-pass road in last 5 years,” Saptagiri said.

Issues

As Koraput is set to go to polls on May 13, lack of drinking water facility, better price of agricultural produce of tribal farmers and good healthcare facilities are among the main demands of the voters of the constituency.

Koraput, which is often called the Kashmir of Odisha for its hills, waterfalls and forests, has more women voters than male. Out of total 14.8 lakh voters, 7.74 lakh are women and 7.07 lakh are male.

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