Of Confusion and Question Marks: The Odisha story
The run up to elections are amazing times. Intense, unpredictable, chaotic and surprising in equal measures. And the run up to the 2014 elections seems to be like nothing ever witnessed before. Silently changing political contours in Uttar Pradesh to breaking into established bastions with aplomb in West Bengal. Ideological polarizations among the youth to debates on third party alternatives. Idealism and anarchy in equal proportions in Delhi to party dictates blurring in Andhra Pradesh. Opportunist coalitions by the Left to suspense over the next move of the TMC. A ‘chaiwallah’ taking the country by storm to dynasty beneficiaries revealing their ignorance to the world. This election promises to be like no other.
Each state, each party has its own story of intertia, change and drastic measures. And one such incredible story is being charted out in Odisha. But, sadly this story does not raise hopes or give us a sense of the larger picture. This is a story of ineptitude, confusion and the subsequent chaos that the impending elections have put Odisha into.
Recently, Odisha MLAs voted for the 4 candidates who would make it to the Rajya Sabha. The flippancy, confusion and surprise which these elections threw up sheds light on the indecipherable political muddle that is the present day Odisha. Padma Vibhushan Raghunath Mahapatra was an independent candidate in the election and enjoyed strong support from the BJD. Mahapatra is an iconic sculptor and architect and the Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had taken special interest in ensuring his victory.
After much deliberation, the BJP state unit had declared their support to Mahapatra to ensure that the Congress fielded candidate and IPL chairman Ranjib Biswal would not be elected. BJP leader had said that the support to a BJD backed candidate was primarily influenced by the larger goal of ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’. In a strange turn of events, BJP MLA Manoj Pradhan has been missing from the 7th morning and missed the elections. The state believed that with the BJD and BJP pledging support to Raghunath Mahapatra, his election was just a formality. But, in another surprising turn of events, Ranjib Biswal from the Congress secured 29 first votes as opposed to Mahapatra who won just 20 votes.
The minimum number of first votes required for ensuring a candidates selection to the Rajya Sabha is just 30. But, inspite of this knowledge the 3 contesting BJD candidates , A.U Singhdeo, Kalpataru Das and Sarojini Hembram received 33,32 and 31 votes respectively. This meant that Mahapatra lost 6 crucial votes and along with another cancelled vote by a BJD MLA lost the critical elections. Ranjib Biswal, the powerful and influential IPL chairman will now represent the Congress in the Rajya Sabha.
There are several questions which arise now. The state BJP unit has clarified that all the members had voted for Mahapatra and have blamed the BJD for cheating the people of the state. 1 BJP MLA abstaining from the vote and 1 rebel from the group voting for Biswal among a handful of elected BJP MLAs is only a fraction of the indecisiveness which plagued the party while deciding on their votes. It speaks a lot about the state of the BJP Odisha cadre and the failing attempts to get them motivated and function as a cohesive unit. Did the BJD turn on the Chief Minister and work in consonance with state Congress interests?
The BJD is already dented by large scale mining scam allegations and this blatant refusal to toe the party line can severely scald the well crafted image of the incumbent Chief Minister. What could be the motivation behind electing a Congress candidate? Are there some unexpected undercurrents at work or did horse-trading make a comeback? Or is it just the superb poll management by the Congress, aided by the man who has successfully managed the Indian cricket team? Is the state politics so untouched by the emerging national political discourse, to be affected by such specific man management skills?
It is still too early to answer these questions and like all, we can only speculate. But, the only thing which has emerged clearly from this recent fiasco is the almost complete strain between the state BJP unit and the BJD. The BJP believes that Ranjib Biswal getting 29 votes in a house with just 27 Congress members shows the hypocrisy of the BJD and its feigned neutrality.
It is in this context that Narendra Modi’s rally in Bhubaneshwar scheduled on the 11th of this month will be a much awaited event. The rally has to be located in the environment of mutual discord and animosity between the state BJP unit and the BJD. But, the national leaders of the BJP cannot forget that the party is in dire straits in the state and any possibility of an alliance with a party in a position to secure 16+ votes cannot be easily dismissed. Modi’s rally in Bhubaneshwar will be as critical as the recent rally in Kolkata. Just like the local BJP unit in West Bengal awaited Modi’s take on TMC, the Odisha BJP unit will be anticipating strong words against the BJD in Odisha. The BJPs dilemma though is extremely palpable. The BJP has been routed in the recently conducted Bhubaneshwar, Cuttack and Baripada Municipal Corporation elections.
Late last year, they suffered major losses in Western Odisha municipal elections which was considered to be one of the remaining party strongholds. There is no strong local face to stand tall and deliver as a leader in Odisha. There is no Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan or Vasundhara Raje in Odisha BJP who can connect to the people on local concerns and take on the charisma and popularity of Naveen Patnaik, head on. There is growing discontent with the way the national leaders of the BJP have tackled corruption charges against the BJD in Odisha. The vocal anger and aggressive opposition shown by the state BJP on the infamous mining scam often gets subdued when top leaders visiting the state exercise immense caution and constraint in speaking against the Patnaik regime. Even the party president Rajnath Singh had very little to say on the issue which could well be one of the most critical election agenda this year.
The national leaders’ silence on taking on the BJD sends out very confusing signals to both the BJP cadre and the people of Odisha. Is the party keeping open the options of a post-poll alliance? If that is infact what explains the silence, what strategy should the state unit employ? The single explorable link between BJD and BJP was Jayalalitha who has moved on to provide a third alternative with the Left. Does this call for a radical change in plans keeping in mind that silence on BJD’s governance record and corruption will in no way allow BJP to open its Lok Sabha seat account in the state?
The BJD has on the other hand left no stone unturned to put BJP in the dock. Mounting attacks on the communal nature of the party to refusing the largest grounds in the capital city for the Modi rally- the BJD has not shown the least interest in reviving the alliance. Why then the dilly dallying in coming up a cogent poll strategy for Odisha. The people of Odisha are the only victims in this confused chain of events in the state.
The story of politics in Odisha is not just the story of the confusion of the BJP and the over-confident tirade of the BJD. It is also not just about a well meaning Chief Minister who is being increasingly put in a spot by his party and dragged into muck through corruption charges on his government. It is also the story of a motley group of rebels from both the BJD and the Congress forming the Odisha Jana Manch and Aama Odisha Party. These parties have no clear ideology, no political agenda and are strongly veering towards AAP inspired populist politics.
And then there is AAP. The very same AAP whose leader Prashant Bhushan talked of a referendum in Naxal areas is now going to contest elections from several tribal, Naxal infested districts of Odisha! Seeing their moral charades and sanctimonious pedestal in Delhi, one can just hope their manifesto clearly points out their agenda in Odisha. Odisha politics before elections is also a story of angry rebels, opportunist independent candidates and as most in the state know, free flowing alcohol and money.
With Modi’s big rally round the corner, the focus will be on how far these issues are highlighted and addressed. Yes, there are key questions of development, employment, corruption which needs to be talked about. But, it is high time that the confusing coalition dynamics be addressed in the state. The people of Odisha can only hope that February 11th will provide some clarity amidst all this political chaos. For competitive, clean politics makes much better election stories than confused, callous ones. Hope the story unfolds soon.