The rural and urban local body polls in Odisha may be slated for next month, but the ruling Biju(BJD) still does not seem to be gearing up to reactivate the party organisation at the grassroots level, which has remained out of action since the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020.
In November last year, the BJD appointed senior leaders as observers in all 30 districts of the state for the civic polls. However, the party has not come up with a detailed election strategy so far. And, with organisational meetings still not taking place physically at any level – including at the state level involving BJD supremo and Chief Minister– the party is yet to galvanise its rank and file for fighting the upcoming polls.
Currently, only a few BJD leaders are touring the key districts, who include party vice president Debi Prasad Mishra and secretary Pranab Prakash Das. Mishra has been appointed in-charge of Ganjam, Naveen Patnaik’s constituency.
Ganjam district might be an area of some concern for the party following
the arrest of ex-minister Pradeep Panigrahy last month for his alleged involvement in a job fraud case. The former Ganjam in-charge, Panigrahy was once close to Patnaik. He was however suspended from the BJD on 29 November for “anti-people activities” after being accused of involvement in the job scam. He had fallen out with Patnaik as he had been criticising his government since May-June 2020 over its alleged Covid mismanagement. Ganjam had emerged as a Covid hotspot as a large number of migrants returned there from Gujarat.
BJD leaders point out that while virtual meetings are being held, the party has not convened any organisational meetings physically to deliberate on the issues to be raised in the civic polls so that it could be promptly communicated to the party workers for electioneering.
A senior BJD leader and two-time MLA said, “There has been minimum or zero party interactions as we look forward to the civic polls. The situation was very different earlier. In-person meetings were held and major issues raised from every district and constituency. These issues were addressed and discussed in presence of the senior leaders including the party president (Patnaik).”
Several BJD leaders feel that the accessibility to the CM has reduced substantially, which, in turn, is affecting the functioning of the organisation.
“Communication has become a one-way affair. Earlier, we could visit ‘Naveen Niwas’ and raise our grievances, it was a monthly affair. Now it is not the case,” a BJD leader said.
Since the outset of the pandemic, Patnaik has confined himself to “Naveen Niwas”, handling government and party matters from his residence. He has also refrained from attending any Assembly sessions and marked his attendance only via video links. Only recently, he started visiting various districts to roll out several schemes and projects.
The February civic polls will be the first major elections in Odisha after the 2019 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, in which the principal Opposition party, the BJP, had made significant gains. The BJP had scalped 8 of the total 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state, up from just one in the 2014 general elections, with the BJD clinching 12 and the Congress winning 1 seat.
In the Assembly elections, however, despite a vigorous campaign undertaken by the BJP, the BJD bagged 113 of the total 174 seats, with the BJP wining 23 seats, up from its 2014 tally of 10 seats, and the Congress’s tally plunging to 9. Subsequently, the BJD also won big in the three Assembly bypolls, including in Balasore where the BJP had won in 2019.
In the 2017 rural local body polls, of 854 zilla parishad seats for which polls were held in five phases, the BJD had won 473 and the BJP 297, while the Congress had got only 60 seats.
The election to 113 of Odisha’s 115 urban local bodies has been pending since 2018 due to court cases and the pandemic. In the 2013 urban body polls, the BJD had won 78 seats, with the Congress winning 35 and the BJP 2 seats.
Meanwhile, in the run-up to the February polls, the BJP is stepping up its preparations, holding party meetings at all levels across the state.
However, the BJD, which has been ruling the state since 2000 with Patnaik as the CM, remains unruffled. In the last one year, the BJD has seen three of its ministers embroiled in various controversies, which seem to have fizzled out now with the party managing to defuse any adverse ramifications.
Meanwhile, seeking to boost its electoral prospects, the ruling party has continued to announce a slew of schemes and development projects. Since October last year, Patnaik has visited at least 15 districts in order to distribute health cards under the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana. Over the last one month, the government has proposed to spend Rs 1,440 crore for house repair for 30 lakh rural households. It has also declared an assistance of Rs 1,000 each for 96 lakh beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act as well as the State Food Security scheme.
The spate of these announcements also involve financial inclusion plans for women and Self Help Groups (SHGs) as well as various infrastructure projects including for sports development at the district level.