Bhubaneswar: On September 7, 2017, at a rally in Bhubaneswar, the then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national president Amit Shah gave a clarion call to his party cadres in Odisha for achieving Mission 120 — the target of winning 120 of the 147 assembly seats. It seemed a nearly impossible task considering that the party had just 10 members in the assembly then, its second lowest since it rode to power in Odisha in alliance with Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in 2000.

But flush with the success of nine-fold jump in zilla parishad seats in 2017 panchayat polls, a belligerent Shah tried to enthuse his cadres with slogans such as “Ethara Mission 120, Padma Asuchhi Phuti Phuti (This time Mission 120, the lotus is about to bloom)”, often comparing chief minister (CM) Naveen Patnaik to a defunct transformer who was bereft of ideas and innovations.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his union ministers made a beeline to Odisha promising a change of guard in the 2019 assembly polls, it seemed as if BJP was about to launch a decisive assault on Patnaik’s citadel in Odisha, which he had been ruling for 19 years.

But Patnaik had the final laugh as BJD won 112 of the 147 assembly seats, increasing its voteshare to 44.7% while BJP had to be content at 23 seats, around 20% of what it had aimed to win. For BJP, the consolation prize of course was becoming the main opposition party replacing Congress that has been reduced to single digit with six seats. But in what was also a sign of the distinct mood of the electorate vis a vis national and state polls, the BJP won eight of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, a leap from the single seat it had won in 2014.

But success at the state-level remained elusive.

A series of setbacks

On Sunday, when BJD’s Rudra Pratap Maharathy won the bypoll in the picturesque Pipili assembly constituency by defeating BJP’s Ashrit Patnaik by 20,916 votes, it was the fourth successive assembly bypoll defeat for the BJP since the loss in 2019 assembly polls, despite union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan and former union minister Pratap Sarangi investing in the campaign. Though few expected the BJP to cause an upset in Pipili, considered a pocketborough of BJD since 2000, the back-to-back defeat at the hands of BJD have raised questions about the party’s ability in checkmating the regional party in elections.

After the 2019 assembly polls, BJP has lost to BJD in Bijepur, Tirtol, Balasore Sadar and Pipili assembly bypolls, most of which were necessitated due to death of the incumbent MLAs. The defeat in Pipili will rankle BJP more as Patnaik did not even address a political rally barring one virtual rally in April.

Except Pipili bypoll, where BJP’s vote percentage went up by marginally, in the other three bypolls, its voteshare went down. In Bijepur bypoll, necessitated by Naveen Patnaik vacating the seat, the party’s voteshare went down to 20.62% from 28.91% that it recorded in 2019 assembly election. In Balasore Sadar assembly, that party’s voteshare went down from 47.26% in 2019 to 43.57% in 2020 bypoll, while in Tirtol assembly bypoll conducted in November last year, its voteshare dippedfrom 30.9% in 2019 to 27.9% in 2020. To be sure, in bypolls, the incumbent has an advantage but the numbers will not please the BJP.

While some soul searching is underway in the BJP headquarters, the reasons why the BJP has been unable to meet the Patnaik led juggernaut, particularly given its success elsewhere, is manifold.

Organisational weakness

First, while the BJP may derive its ideological moorings and strength from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has a strong network in Odisha for more than three decades, the BJP does not have much grassroots strength that can stand upto BJD.

In the 2019 assembly election, when Shah wanted to have around 20-25 workers in each of the 37000 booths in the state, that aim could not be achieved. By the time the state went to vote, many booths had a handful BJP workers compared to the teeming workers of BJD aided by an official machinery that the BJP alleged became an extension of the ruling party. Since the 2019 assembly election, most party hoppers have joined BJD, either from Congress or BJP, indicating which party is stronger at the ground level.

Last month, former Kotpad Congress MLA Chandra Sekhar Majhi joined BJD. The same month, BJP leader and member of party’s national executive committee Ramesh Chandra Parida joined BJD. In December last year, former Dhenkanal municipality chairman Sudhansu Dalei joined BJD with over 800 party workers.

The leadership dilemma

Second, the party does not have anyone who can match the popularity of Naveen Patnaik, who, despite his health problems and age, is the best known face in the state. Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who was the first among the equals in the state unit since becoming union minister in 2014, has a base, and has worked hard in building the party in the state — and he remains the BJP’s foremost face in Odisha, with a strong national profile. His recent elevation as the in charge of the party for the Uttar Pradesh polls catapults him to an even bigger organisational role. But, at the state level, Patnaik has a clear edge.

Others such as Bhubaneswar MP Aparajita Sarangi, BJP national vice-president Baijayant Panda or Balasore MP Pratap Sarangi have limited appeal in their pockets — Panda is also increasingly being assigned other national responsibilities by the party; he is in charge of Assam and Delhi. Rajya Sabha MP from the State union railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw is seen as a technocrat with negligible mass recognition or support. Rumours of factionalism have not helped either.

The BJP central leadership’s confusion over the leadership in state BJP is palpable from the fact that it does not have the necessary confidence to project one leader as its face.

The reliance on BJD

Third, the BJP central leadership’s dependence on parties such as BJD to get crucial Bills passed in Parliament has meant that the party often sacrifices its own interest in the state — this has confused the state’s voters as to whether Patnaik is an ally or opponent of BJP.

In June 2019, BJD had supported BJP’s Ashwini Vaishnaw, a former IAS officer, to become a member of Rajya Sabha, triggering allegations of bonhomie between the two parties. In June 2019, BJD had supported scrapping of Article 370 that took away the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, while in December 2019, it voted in favour of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Parliament helping it become an Act.

Patnaik later said his party was opposed to the proposed National Register of Citizens, but it carried little meaning with many in Odisha seeing him as an ally of BJP. It also supported the Triple Talaq Bill and election of M Venkaiah Naidu as vice president.

The accusation of bonhomie between the two parties has also been fuelled by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)’s tardiness over the investigation into multi-thousand crore chit fund scam in which several BJD leaders stand accused. The ambivalence of the BJP’s central leadership has had an impact in elections, with electorate opting for Patnaik’s party, assuming that there is little to choose between the two.

Patnaik’s shrewdness

The fourth and perhaps the most important factor in explaining BJD’s hegemony is the remarkable political maneouverability shown by Patnaik. From starting a cash assistance programme such as Kalia on the eve of 2019 polls that managed to cut the party’s losses in at least one-fifth of the assembly seats to doling out money and assistance for women of Self Help Groups, who form the bulk of his votebank, Patnaik has done everything possible to keep his votebase intact. Patnaik’s own image of being a non-corrupt man despite cases of corruption among government officials has also helped the BJD.

BJD leader Bijay Nayak says there is no way anyone in Odisha politics can stand upto Patnaik. “His clean image and the developmental work done by the government ensures that no opposition party can hope to best BJD in any poll,” said Nayak.

Patnaik has also managed to snatch away the BJP’s plank of Hindutva by going on a spree of development of temples, including the iconic Jagannath temple in Puri town through a clever mix of central and state funding. In Puri alone, he has promised expenditure of over 3200 crore for developing the area around Jagannath temple as well as the pilgrim town before the 2024 polls. By championing the cause of Jagannath culture, a syncretic one, he has nipped in the bud BJP’s plans of hard Hindutva.

Political experts say the that under such circumstances all that BJP can do is to wait till Patnaik abdicates power. “He is already a five-time chief minister and may go on to win 2024 polls if he remains fit, considering how well-oiled the BJD’s electoral machinery is. But there is still no clarity on who after Patnaik, as he has not built a second rung leadership. That may be BJD’s biggest undoing and the party may find difficult to remain together in a post-Patnaik scenario,” said Rabi Das, noted political analyst.

While that scenario is yet to play out, for the BJP in Odisha, the immediate challenge is to show that its 2017 panchayat polls performance was no flash in the pan. State BJP chief Sameer Mohanty says despite the loss at Pipili, the BJP increased its votes. “We would definitely do well in panchayat polls,” he said. How much of that is going to happen in 2022 panchayat polls will depend upon the ability of BJP leaders to think out of the box while raising locally relevant issues such as corruption in housing schemes, irregularities in paddy procurement and rising unemployment. But for now, one of India’s most underrated but most successful politicians — who has now been in power, uninterrupted, for 21 years, remains firmly in control.

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