Jay Panda has finally joined the BJP, ending months of speculations. After falling out with Naveen Patnaik, he had earlier expressed his desires to join forces with anybody to tackle the severe problems that Odisha is currently facing. 

Panda’s entry in the party is likely to give a boost to BJP’s prospects in the state, which sends 21 MPs to the Parliament. The BJP won 157 seats in 2014 Lok Sabha elections from five Hindi heartland states, i.e. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan — 55% of its total tally of 282.

The support for the BJP has peaked in these states and it had devised a Mission East and South to expand its footprint in the rest of the country. 

Also read: Rebel BJD leader Baijayant 'Jay' Panda joins BJP in Amit Shah's presence

There are several factors, which could help the BJP to improve its tally in the eastern state of Odisha. 

1. Anti-incumbency against Naveen’s 20-year rule

Patnaik has been in power for the past 20 years, which is long enough to develop an anti-incumbency against the government. 

The elections to the state Assembly are being held along with the Lok Sabha elections since the past three elections. 

Patnaik has benefitted from this by managing to make the elections regional rather than national. 

The there is no alternative (TINA) factor has helped the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), especially due to the internal dispute within the Congress. Congress has changed its state president seven times during 2000-2014 as per a Hindustan Times report. Since the BJP was part of a coalition led by BJD in the state till 2009, it couldn’t develop its own leadership. In a nutshell, there is no other leader, other than Patnaik, to rule the state.

Patnaik has also benefitted from the rich legacy of his father Biju Patnaik. 

2. Decoupling Lok Sabha elections from Vidhan Sabha elections

The vote shares for the BJP improved in 2014 but the party could manage just one seat. It finished as the runner up in nine seats, losing two by margins of less than 3%. 

This time, Modi is trying to make this contest national by decoupling it from state elections and exhort people to vote on national issues. The natural fatigue, which develops after any such long tenure will help BJP to make inroads in the state. There are reports of Modi contesting from Puri. If this happens, a UP like situation cannot be ruled out. The slogan “same government in the center and in the state will lead to better development”, may work in favour of BJP. Central and state elections at the same time also compensate for BJP’s weakness of not having a tall local leader like Patnaik. 

The Presidential style elections will pitch Modi versus Patnaik helping the party: 54% prefer Modi as PM versus 21% for Rahul. 

3. BJP overtaking Congress as no. 2 party in the state

The Congress’s performance has been steadily declining in general election from 44% in 1991 to 26.4% in 2014. The party even failed to open its account in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. During the same period, the BJP’s vote share has more than doubled from 9.5% to 21.9%. In the Panchayat elections held in 2017, the BJP improved its tally from 36 to 306, while Congress’s tally halved from 126 to 66. While Congress recorded 18% vote share, BJP recorded 33% in panchayat polls. In by-polls held for Kandhamal Parliamentary seat as well as Bijepur Assembly seat, BJP had emerged as the clear number two. 

So in 2019, the contest is clearly between BJP and BJD. In a major setback for the Congress ahead of elections, state working president and Jahrsuguda MLA, Naba Kisore Das, resigned from the party and joined the BJD. 

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4. Increase in support from anchor voting segments 

While the BJP received an overwhelming support from the upper castes (56%) and OBCs (34%) nationally, these communities supported the BJD in Odisha (49% and 45% respectively). The OBCs supported the BJP as Modi hails from the community while the upper castes have moved from the Congress to the BJP after the Ram Mandir movement.  The BJP also has a scope of improving its support among the tribals — 18% in the state voted for the party versus 38% nationally. 

The RSS has a significant presence in the tribal belts, running various schools and social welfare schemes, which could be of help. The 10% reservation for economically weaker sections of the general category could help the party make gains in the upper caste vote bank. 

5. Targeting Patnaik for poor socio-economic indicators 

Odisha is still an economically backward state despite having abundant mineral resources. The per capita income of Odisha is 29% below the national average. One-third of the state’s population lives below the poverty line against the national average of 22%. 

A panel headed by Raghuram Rajan had ranked Odisha as the most backward state in India. A joint survey conducted by the US-India Policy Institute and the New Delhi-based Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy in 2015 found that eight Odisha districts are among the 50 most backward districts in the country. The BJP would target this and blame Patnaik’s leadership for the backwardness, portraying Modi as the torchbearer of development. 

6. Infighting, corruption cases have weakened BJD

It’s an open secret that Patnaik relies more on bureaucrats than his party leaders. The spat between MPs Tathagata Satpathy and Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda on social media is fresh in everyone’s mind. Panda attacked Patnaik, questioning his leadership abilities and was suspended from the party. He is all out to spoil the party’s chances in the state. Allegations of corruption have rocked Patnaik’s government, though he has a clean image. Mining scams, amounting to Rs 60,000 crore, is the biggest corruption allegation against his government. He has replaced as many as 26 ministers during his entire tenure, according to reports. 

While Odisha provides a fertile ground for BJP’s expansion, the party could face challenges

1. Though, the BJP has spread its wings across India, including the Northeast, it is still seen as a ‘Hindi bhaashi’ party.  

2.  Patnaik in many ways is like Modi. He is very popular with 59% wanting to see him as the chief minister in 2019, according to the India Today Political Stock Exchange. 

3. While the BJD has a strong presence throughout the state, while the BJP is strong in western Odisha, where it recorded 30% vote share versus 21.5% state average. The BJP has a good chance of improving its performance in Odisha in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. An exciting contest is on the horizon.

The views of the author are his own and may not reflect those of MyNation