Will Naveen Patnaik's Western Odisha Gambit Work?

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Trust Naveen Patnaik to catch his opponents off-guard. Last Monday, he surprised everyone, including many in his own party, with his announcement about fielding women candidates in 33% of Lok Sabha seats, the first time in India’s political history a party has done something like this.

Ever since he piloted a resolution in the last session of the state Assembly calling for earmarking 33% of seats in both Lok Sabha and state Assemblies, the opposition parties had been daring him to walk the talk by fielding women candidates in 33% of seats. But after the Chief Minister and BJD supremo made the announcements in Kendrapara, the two opposition parties are now scurrying to rejig their candidates’ list and field more women in a desperate bid not to lose the perception battle.

On Sunday morning, Patnaik made another announcement that has taken everyone by complete surprise. He told media persons assembled at Naveen Nivas, his residence, that he is ‘seriously considering’ an appeal from ‘the leaders of Western Odisha, the farmers, the women, the students’ to contest the Assembly election from a constituency in the region.

Whether or not he decides to contest from western Odisha, the significance of the announcement by the BJD president can hardly be overestimated. It is a region where the BJD has not done as well as it has in the rest of the state in the last two elections. Even in 2014, when it swept the polls, it did not exactly set the Mahanadi on fire, the bulk of its 117 seats coming from its bastion of coastal Odisha.

In contrast, the BJP has always fared better in this area than it has done in other parts of the state. The saffron party had a lion’s share of the seats – both Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha – all through the BJD-BJP alliance years between 1998-2009. Even in the last elections in 2014, when the BJD swept the polls, the BJP won as many as eight out of its tally of 10 Assembly seats from this region. Things have only improved for the BJP and nosedived for the BJD since then. In the February, 2017 panchyat polls, the BJP won over 120 zilla parishad seats and went on to head six out of the 10 districts in the region while the BJD could muster no more than 54. With the tide in the area appearing to have turned back in favour of Modi after Pulwama, it thus makes eminent political sense for Patnaik to contest from western Odisha in an effort to wrest the region away from its rival.

Another major reason for this unexpected announcement is the fact that the stock of the Congress, which had hit rock bottom across the state till a few months ago, has suddenly started looking up in the region bordering Chhattisgarh after the party assumed power there. The decision to waive farm loans by the Bhupesh Baghel government appears to have struck a chord on this side of the border while there are reports from the ground about farmers in western Odisha, who are finding it hard to sell their paddy even at the MSP of Rs. 1750 per quintal, crossing over to the other side to sell their produce for Rs 2, 500, which includes a Rs. 750 bonus paid by the Chhattisgarh government. In his public address in Bargarh on Friday, Congress president Rahul Gandhi had promised Rs. 2, 600/ per quintal of paddy if the party comes to power. This has upset the calculations of the BJD which, in any case, was not the strongest in the region.

If Patnaik ultimately moves to western Odisha, it will certainly improve the fortunes of his party. But the important question is whether his charm offensive would be enough to keep a gung-ho BJP and a resurgent Congress at bay.