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With history on the line, Odisha is going to see an election like never before

Ashutosh Mishra

Battle lines have been drawn in Odisha with the three major contestants – Biju Janata Dal (BJD), BJP and Congress—itching for a fight. Stakes are high for all the parties as the upcoming contest could prove decisive for their future. The Naveen Patnaik-led BJD is eager to set a new record by registering its sixth straight win in the state assembly elections while also keeping its Lok Sabha record intact. The party has been winning maximum Lok Sabha seats in the state since coming to power in 2000.

If BJD wins the state elections, Patnaik will become the chief minister of the state for a record sixth term which will also make him the longest serving chief minister of the country. A victory will also confirm BJD’s status not only as the most successful regional party of Odisha but also as one of the most successful regional parties of the country. Given the clout that regional outfits enjoy in this era of coalitions, a victory could also make BJD a major player in the national politics, though Patnaik at the moment seems to have no national ambitions.

But even Patnaik would like to be in a position from where he can, if need be, bargain with the Centre to further the interests of the state he rules. In 2019, his party had won 12 out of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state and it had 9 Rajya Sabha MPs. This put him in an advantageous position which he used to develop excellent relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who frequently needed BJD’s support in the parliament, especially the Rajya Sabha where the NDA did not have the required numbers.

Patnaik would like to retain the same clout vis-à-vis the ruling party or combine in Delhi while he would be looking to repeat his 2019 performance in the state assembly to ensure that he enjoys a brute majority. This way he can have the best of both worlds.

However, this election is a bit unusual in the sense that neither the BJD nor the BJP, the two main rivals who would be clashing for the top honours, wanted it to begin the way it did. After being adversaries in the state politics for the last 15 years, they tried to patch up and revive an alliance that had collapsed back in 2009 causing a bitter parting. However, efforts at revival failed as talks between the two sides hit a dead end over the issue of seat adjustment. So, they are once again entering the electoral arena as rivals.

Congress, which completes the electoral triangle in Odisha, seems to be happy at the turn of events but its leadership realizes that it neither has the organisational strength nor the wherewithal to take advantage of the situation. It should rather be realistic and try to focus on improving upon its dismal performance in 2019 when it could manage to win just 1 Lok Sabha and 9 assembly seats.

This election is also about turncoats reaping a rich haul as far as party tickets are concerned. The election season saw an exodus of leaders from all the three major parties. Most of them defected after being assured of tickets by the parties they joined, and the parties have kept their word. The big ones who defected from the BJD included former ministers Pradeep Panigrahi, Debashish Nayak and sitting MLA Prashant Jagdev. Panigrahi and Jagdev had courted controversies and had lost all hope of getting a party ticket. The party, in fact, had shown them the door. Nayak, too, appears to have realized that he would not get a BJD ticket. They all joined the BJP, which has been welcoming turncoats with open arms.

Panigrahi has been fielded by the BJP as its Lok Sabha candidate from Berhampur where his main rival would be Bhrugu Buxipatra who quit the saffron party and was rewarded with a ticket by the BJD within hours. Six-time MP from Cuttack Bhartruhari Mahtab also left the BJD to join the BJP and has been made the party’s candidate for the Cuttack Lok Sabha seat.

Among other turncoats in news are film stars-cum-politicians such as Anubhav Mohanty, who is currently the MP from Kendrapara, Akash Das Nayak and Arindam Ray. They all quit the BJD to jump onto the BJP bandwagon. The BJD has also rewarded party hoppers. A good example is Anshuman Mohanty, a former Congress MLA. He has been pitted against BJP stalwart Baijayant Jay Panda. The chief minister is likely to campaign in Kendrapara personally to boost Mohanty’s chances of winning the contest.

The regional party has also roped in Congress stalwart Surendra Singh Bhoi and fielded him from the Balangir Lok Sabha constituency. Similarly, the party has given Manmath Routray, son of former Congress minister Suresh Kumar Routray, the ticket from the prestigious Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat. A commercial pilot, Manmath is a political greenhorn. Chiranjib Biswal, a former MLA and stalwart of Congress from the coastal belt, has also joined the BJD.

As the combatants get ready for the battle, all eyes are set on the Sambalpur Lok Sabha seat which is set to witness the clash of the titans. While union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who is BJP’s face in Odisha, is contesting from the seat for the first time, the ruling BJD has pitted chief minister’s confidant and party’s general secretary (organisation) Pranab Prakash Das against him. That would make for an exciting high-voltage contest.

In the Puri Lok Sabha seat, the BJD has replaced its sitting MP Pinaki Mishra with former Mumbai police commissioner Arup Patnaik who had lost the last election on its ticket from Bhubaneswar. By all accounts it would be a tough battle for the ex-cop who finds himself pitted against BJP’s multi-faceted national spokesperson Sambit Patra, who has been nurturing the constituency assiduously for the last five years.

The Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat, too, could see an interesting contest given the fact that BJD candidate Manmath Routray, despite being a political novice, enjoys the support of people in areas like Jatni and Khurda because of his father Suresh Routray’s good work in the past. A veteran, his father has represented the Jatni seat several times in the state assembly and is also known for his social work in the area. The junior Routray could hope to ride to success on the goodwill of his father.

However, no one should underestimate his BJP rival, bureaucrat-turned-politician Aparajita Sarangi who has won the Bhubaneswar seat in 2019 against all odds. An excellent organiser, she has worked hard during the last five years to consolidate her base in the constituency. Besides, all the BJP candidates this time are hoping to cash in on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who would be the face of the party’s campaign across the country.

As for the BJD, like in the past it would be led from the front by its infallible poll mascot – Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik who would be ably assisted by his Man Friday, IAS-turned-politician VK Pandian, a master strategist who has never failed his boss. The BJD will also be invoking the Biju legacy which has been one of its most potent political weapons in the past.

With no realistic chance of victory, the Congress must better its last election record for the sake of its own survival in the state.

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