NEW DELHI: In the 2014 general elections, Balabhadra Majhi and Baijayant Panda were well-known names from Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Majhi from western Odisha and Panda from coastal Odisha won their Lok Sabha elections contributing to the BJD’s massive victory in 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
Cut to 2019, both Majhi and Panda have left the BJD ahead of the 2019 elections and are fighting from their constituencies, Nabarangpur and Kendrapara respectively, as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates.
They are not the only ones powering the BJP in Odisha. The BJD’s Kandhamal member of Parliament (MP) Pratyusha Rajeswari Singh, members of legislative assembly (MLAs) K.Narayan Rao and Dama Raut, youth leaders Babu Singh and Subhranshu Das and Congress legislator Prakash Behera are among a host of names who have joined the BJP. Veteran leader Kharabela Swain and Bijoy Mohapatra who had earlier left the BJP have returned to the party strengthening its standing in the state.
For several years, the BJP’s electoral standing has been relatively poor in the state. With just 10 MLAs in the 147-member assembly and only one of the 21 MPs from the state, the BJP was a laggard five years ago. However, over the last five years, a focused push to gain ground in the state has helped the party. The BJP’s growth in the state became visible after the 2017 panchayat polls, when the party’s performance, aided by consistent ground work done by two Odia central ministers, petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan and tribal affairs minister Jual Oram, got national attention. Pradhan and Oram do not enjoy a traditional political base but have worked consistently over the past five years to improve the party’s chances in both the coastal belt and the tribal-dominated western Odisha region.
“The BJD looks frustrated and fearful. It shows in their campaign and during ticket distribution. A lot of leaders from the BJD are in touch and will join in due course…the flood gates have opened," said Jatin Mohanty, secretary of the BJP Odisha unit.
The BJP is in a strong position and “its performance in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections will surprise many critics", Mohanty said.
However, BJD leaders in the state believe the “BJP’s propaganda" won’t give them any success and that Patnaik will win a fifth term. “Our chief minister has a record of reaching out to people and now he is travelling even more. People’s faith in Naveen babu has only increased as he has done something or the other for farmers, youth, poor, and pensioners," said Anup Sai, a BJD leader.
“Political leaders who lost out on tickets to fight in the elections have joined the BJP. In a way they are taking less popular leaders to improve their chance. By doing this, the BJP is ignoring the growth of their own workers. If dissidents are so capable then why are they deserting?" asked another BJD leader who asked not to be named.
“Leaders who are joining the BJP are only making TV newsroom noise without weighing their own ground popularity. As we are a successful party in power for almost 20 years, it’s natural that a lot of leaders want to fight the election and the party is selecting those who have a better chance of winning. The BJP’s state president’s nephew has joined BJD. Do they have any answer to that?" asked the leader mentioned above. By accumulating BJD leaders, the BJP is confusing its own cadre and antagonizing its own leaders in the , he said.
Jayant Mahapatra, a political analyst in Odisha, said the BJP will certainly gain in the state but it will be tough to say if they will topple the BJD in the Assembly.
“The BJD is in a strong position and all those who are leaving the regional party may not bring success for the BJP. Those joining the BJP are ambitious and may be of the view that they will grow with the BJP in the state," Mahapatra said.
Mohanty of the BJP, however, believes that those joining his party see a better future for themselves.
“Most of them are senior leaders and are bringing decades of experience and political capability. You cannot wish away their contribution. Opposition leaders who are underestimating them will get to know the outcome soon," he said.
Prakash Behera, who left the Congress to join the BJP last month, agreed. “For the last two years the state Congress has been ignoring me…I had raised my concerns but it was not addressed. I joined the BJP. It’s a growing party in Odisha and it has a bright future. Several top leaders from the state who were not earlier in BJP have joined and made the party stronger. I feel the growth that we are observing now will bring a huge electoral dividend for the BJP," he said.
A BJD leader who recently left the party summed up the situation well. “Since the formation of BJD in 1997, Naveen had been the sole arbitrator. Defection in BJD was not visible. But look at the 2019 elections—the defection is in full swing. The BJP has now got a readymade organization and several leaders who can challenge the regional party," the leader said requesting anonymity.