NEW DELHI: Twenty years after its best electoral performance in Odisha, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping to resurrect itself in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections. The party is making a strong push in a state where Biju Janata Dal leader and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik remains a dominant force after nearly two decades in power. With Congress failing to rise to the challenge, the BJP is trying to woo voters with a development message.
“This is the first time any political party has managed to challenge the electoral strength of Patnaik. BJP has succeeded in delinking the assembly and Lok Sabha polls (being held simultaneously). While Patnaik is a major player in state politics, the BJP leadership has convinced voters that nationally it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi who counts. BJD cannot play a national role in politics," said a senior BJP leader.
The national party is banking on flagship programmes, such as free cooking gas and housing and electricity for all to target the economically and socially weaker sections. Odisha, part of the neglected eastern region, lags on key welfare indicators such as access to healthcare and education. According to NITI Aayog and the UN, Odisha just crossed the halfway mark in terms of the progress in achieving sustainable development goals such as reduction of poverty and inequality. Odisha was ranked 25 with a score of 51, while the national average was 58.
In the 1999 general elections, the BJP won nine out of the 21 LS seats in Odisha, up from seven in the 1998 general polls. Back then, BJP was in an alliance with BJD. At present, BJP has just one LS seat, and 10 representatives in the 147-member legislative assembly.
The state has 57 government doctors and para-medical practitioners for every 100,000 people, compared to 100 doctors in Kerala. It has a mortality rate of 49 for every 1,000 live births for children under five years, almost at par with the all-India average of 50, but by far outranked by states such as Kerala (7) and Goa (13). In education, Odisha ranks 24 among states with a score of 46, below the halfway mark for quality education. The state was at the bottom of the table in terms of school dropout rate. While six out of 100 children stopped schooling in Odisha, the national average was below three, as per the NITI Aayog report.
A senior state BJP leader said the party has a substantial base in west Odisha, and the only member of Parliament (MP) from the party, Jual Oram, represents Sundargarh. “Western Odisha is influenced by the politics of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, where BJP has performed well. We are hoping to play an influential role in the coastal belt to bring in the numbers," he said.
A senior state Congress leader admitted that the party has not been able to strengthen itself, which has helped the BJD dominate the political scene. “We are hopeful that we will do well in Lok Sabha this time, but the BJP may have an edge in the assembly elections," the Congress leader said.
Odisha’s economy is primarily agrarian with more than three-fifths of the population depending on farming for livelihood, which prompted the Patnaik government to announce the Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation programme, an income support scheme for small and marginal farmers. The state’s economy is estimated to have grown at 8.35% in FY19, faster than the all-India rate of 7.2%, state finance minister Shashi Bhusan Behera told the assembly in February. He projected 8-8.5% growth for FY20.
Political analysts said there is a surge in support for the BJP in some parts of Odisha, but both the BJP and Congress have made the same mistake. “There is not one Congress or BJP leader who is ready to stay in Odisha and counter Naveen Patnaik. BJP is sending more leaders from Delhi, but most just visit. The Congress leadership has never been serious about Odisha and, this time, ticket distribution was more about senior leaders and their families," said Gyanaranjan Swain, professor, department of political science, Ravenshaw University, Cuttack.
“There is anger against the BJD’s local leadership because of corruption. Naveen Patnaik is still popular but anti-incumbency against local MLAs and corruption will play on the minds of people," he said.
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