From the outside, the Congress office in Bhubaneswar looks decked up—posters of its national president Rahul Gandhi and state president Niranjan Patnaik with messages of its ₹72,000 a year basic income promise are all over the outer walls. Step in and you see the vacuum; leaders are missing and workers won’t talk.
That sums up the Congress’ situation in the ongoing simultaneous polls in Odisha. The initial promise has faded and the grand old party is missing from the campaign. Both party leaders and the people believe that 2019 may see the party relegated to the third spot—behind the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal and rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Once a formidable force, Congress is the victim of prolonged indecision and infighting in Odisha. Its ticket distribution ahead of the assembly and Lok Sabha polls was mired in controversy, and several leaders quit the party. Five candidates, including former chief minister J.B. Patnaik’s son, Prithvi Ballabh, declined to accept the Congress ticket as the offers came too late.
“Congress is a traditional name in Odisha, but we as a party did not reach out to people enough. Ticket distribution system in our party was not very transparent. I don’t know what exactly our state leadership is thinking," said Sucharita Mohanty, a spokesperson for the Congress in the state.
“There was a void in state politics; we could have filled it through sustained action. The chances of us doing better after the party’s victory in neighbouring Chhattisgarh were high, but I am not sure how we shall perform in the state this time," she added.
The Congress has been dwindling in the state for some time now. In 2014, the Congress had a vote share of 25.7% and won 16 assembly seats, but no Lok Sabha seats. In 2009, it had a vote share of a little over 29%, winning six Lok Sabha seats of the total 21 and 27 seats in the 147-member state assembly.
“Congress had a real good chance of gaining in western Odisha and parts of the state’s coastal belt, but it failed to capitalize on the situation," said Amareswar Mishra, a political analyst and retired professor of Utkal University. “The party is yet to come together and fight. The void that the Congress left in state politics was capitalized on by BJP and they are gaining."
Mishra said the late distribution of tickets has damaged the party, its workers are demotivated and there is no clear direction on what the party wants to achieve.
Prakash Behera, a legislator who left the Congress for BJP last month, agreed. “Several workers and leaders, who were working for the party, were ignored and their concerns not addressed, forcing them to leave the party," said Behera, adding that the party leadership in the state seemed to be favouring their own families while selecting candidates.
There is a buzz in the state about how the Congress abandoned its new “one family, one ticket" rule. Odisha Congress chief Niranjan Patnaik is fighting from two assembly seats. His son is fighting as a Congress candidate from Balasore Lok Sabha constituency. Senior Congress leader Bhakta Charan Das is contesting from Kalahandi Lok Sabha seat and his son Sagar Das is fighting the assembly elections from Bhawanipatna, a segment in Kalahandi. Among others, the father-son duo of George and Rohit Tirkey is contesting for Lok Sabha and assembly elections.
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