At a tea stall on the Sambalpur-Sonepur road in Odisha, Deendayal Dash describes Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a global leader and goes on to talk about what the PM “did to Pakistan.”
“The surgical strike and then after Pulwama, the air strikes took place,” the resident of Sindhol village says, referring to the September 2016 strike on terrorist camps across the Line of Control days after the Uri attack and the February 2019 air strikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Pakistan’s Balakot following the suicide car bombing of a bus carrying paramilitary troopers.
Dash’s is not a lone voice in rural Odisha. In Dendupadar village, standing metres away from Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo, a small businessman who sells Sambalpuri sarees narrates how posters of the victims of Pulwama were pasted on the walls of the village and a candlelight march was organised at the gram panchayat to pay homage to them. “Modi ji has shown he is a tough administrator.” the businessman, who requested that his name be withheld, said.
Nationalism, anti-Pakistan rhetoric and Modi’s image as a decisive leader have made quite an impression in the hinterland of Odisha, giving the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) room to lift its electoral fortunes in the state where simultaneous elections are being held to 21 Lok Sabha and 147 assembly constituencies.
Even so, at the start of a cruel summer in the coastal state, the BJP’s prospects are seen to be swinging between an improvement in its margins and actually winning more seats in a state where Odisha’s favourite leader and chief minister Naveen Patnaik won 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats for the BJD five years ago. The BJP won just one.
BJD won 44% of the popular votes and the Congress 26% in 2014; the BJP was third with a 22% vote share. With the Congress’s position seemingly weakening since, the BJP could benefit by reaping more anti-Congress and anti-BJD votes this time around. As a senior BJD MP put it, “Our chances are better in triangular fights but if it’s BJP versus the BJD, anything can happen.”
All About Modi
The BJP looks much stronger in western Odisha, the party’s main bastion in the state, riding on national issues and the image of Modi as a tough and decisive leader, thanks to the social media’s penetration into the far-flung rural interiors of Odisha.
On a roadshow, Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo, one of the four BJD MPs who has been chosen to stand for re-election to the Lok Sabha, is confronted by angry villagers. As his Ford Endeavour stops at Kalatikra village, some people complain about not receiving old-age pension. Some say they haven’t received payments under the Kalia scheme, which promises ₹25,000 as farm assistance to small farmers over five agricultural seasons to pay for inputs like seeds, fertilisers and pesticides
“There are a lot of local issues that affect the MPs’ chances. We have done exceedingly well in social schemes such as Biju pakka ghar (similar to the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna) and Kalia but some people are making this battle Modi versus me,” says the Balangir MP, with a tinge of tension in his voice, as he breaks bread with the locals at Bahupali.
Suresh Pujari, the BJP candidate in neighbouring Bargarh, says Modi’s popularity is like a tsunami. “This time people will vote for India, the security of India,” he says, as his supporters get ready for the next rally. “This time, parliament election would overshadow the assembly polls as people have seen that we are capable of tackling Pak-sponsored terrorism. Also, PM Modi launched more than 130 pro-poor schemes in the last five years.”
The enthusiasm in the BJP camp and the tension in the BJD quarters is palpable. Yet, between the BJP’s victory and defeat stands one man: Naveen Patnaik.
The Patnaik factor
“In Bargarh, our Prasanna Acharya would have lost for sure. But Naveen babu decided to contest in one of the assembly seats (Bijepur). Things have changed now,” said a senior BJD leader, who is contesting a coastal seat, requesting anonymity.
Just as Dash is upbeat about Modi, he is equally clear that “Naveen babu is the best CM”. And Naveen Patnaik himself moving to a western Odisha seat apart from his stronghold of Hinjili has sent a strong message to BJD cadre to get their act together. From the car driver to the local tea stall owner, there is no doubting the popularity Patnaik enjoys in a state where he has completed 19 years in power.
“There are 70 lakh self-help groups now in Odisha. We find a large number of women attending the meetings. They understand nothing but Naveen and the conch symbol. Late Biju Patnaik (Naveen’s father) gave 33% quota for women in local bodies, Naveen babu made it 50 %,” says Bhartruhari Mahtab, BJD’s floor leader in the 16th Lok Sabha.
The BJD is also banking on a chance factor: that the state’s 83% rural voters would possibly not make a distinction between the assembly and parliament polls when they press the button on the electronic voting machine. “Yes, some educated people might make the distinction, but we hope that a large section of the rural masses will opt for the same symbol in parliament as well as assembly polls,” said a senior BJD leader on condition of anonymity.
The people of Odisha like Patnaik because of his honesty, and the chief minister enjoys an advantage in the absence of an effective opposition leader who can replace him, according to former vice chancellor of Berhampur University Aditya Prasad Padhi.
He added: “The negative factor is that he has ruled for 19 long years. Look at Balangir, its irrigation facility is still below 10 %. Some farmers are happy with Kalia but instead of providing irrigation, Naveen has gone for short-cut solutions.”