Indian state is on the verge of another general election. The province of Odisha will face assembly election along with general election in 2019. Hence it is interesting to watch what people of Odisha think about key political issues and how they react to different political questions.
Peoples Pulse, Hyderabad based political research organisation travelled over 2,000 kilometres across Odisha to understand the mood of the people at the ground level. This was done from 20th May to 31st May 2018, about ten months before the scheduled elections for the Lok Sabha and the Odisha Assembly.
Generally speaking, political parties in Odisha are not bothered about important issues like farmer suicide, dalit and Adivasi rights and the declining role of civil society in Odisha. Over the years, education and health have been neglected.
But the opposition party is not bothered about these issues. The principal opposition party Congress is not sure about what issues they should raise. BJP is worried about image of Naveen Pattnaik and how Dharmendra Pradhan can match him. BJD as the ruling party has absolute hegemony over the entire system. If there is any opposition to BJD, it is within. The others just move around them trying to catch them.
- Naveen Patnaik is popular for his populist schemes like One rupee rice, Ahar scheme for Rs.5, Cycles to girl students, free umbrellas, waiving of interest on loans for self-help groups, Free Laptops to meritorious students, sharing of profit of the Kendu leaf trade among the leaf Pluckers etc.
- TINA factor is still holding the state as far as the ruling BJD is concerned. However, there is a strong anti-incumbency against most of the sitting MLAs and MPs - a trademark in Odisha politics since BJD’s ascension to power.
- Naveen Patnaik is immensely popular and the land, mining and chit-fund scams have neither dented his personal image nor the BJD.
- On account of the perception advantage of Winnability after Localbody elections, BJP, across the regions is being perceived as the main challenger of ruling BJD.
- Thus, BJP in the ‘war of perception’ is fast growing at the cost of Congress as the main opposition party thereby relegating Congress as electorally inconsequential––an alarming situation for Congress.
- In nutshell, it would be reasonable and realistic to infer that in the coming election in 2019, Congress fight would not be with ruling BJD but rather with BJP to retain its position as the principal opposition party.
Major Issues Identified by the People
Peoples Pulse team after field study has discovered a set of issues on which the people are building considerable disaffection towards BJD and BJP.
- Price Rise. When we asked people that who is responsible for the price rise, the reply was that the Central Government 60% responsible, while the State government is 40% responsible.
- Mahanadi river water dispute
- Odisha is in a state of severe agrarian crisis.
- Majority of the peasants are sharecroppers who are without any protection and safety net had to face further problems like drought, high price of seeds and fertilizers; a lack of local market (Mandi) for their crops; inability to get bank loans besides low MSP. These problems are resulting in two factors: migration to other states and in extreme circumstances - farmer’s suicides.
- It is noteworthy that hitherto Odisha wasn’t in the list of states witnessing the phenomenon of farmer’s suicide but now it’s a trend. Since 2016, the issue of farmer’s suicide in western and southern Odisha, mainly in tribal community is an ugly fact. This aspect is markedly different from the death by starvation in KBK region in 1980s.
- Another significant problem that people in all parts of Odisha identified is the scarcity of ‘water’, both drinking and irrigation.
- Thirdly, the pathetic condition of link roads connecting the villages is an issue affecting the people.
- The state of health facilities in most areas is poor.
- There is a lack of teachers in government schools.
- Rampant low-level corruption in the public offices where people have to bribe government officials even for basic work. Particularly in Police Stations and Hospitals.
- However, it must be noted that it’s an irony that the same people who identified these precarious issues affecting them didn’t show a desire for political change on account of the following factors:
- BJD’s popular welfare policies, covering almost all the rural households.
- No good alternative to Naveen Patnaik.
Non-issues From People's Perspective
- Hindutva is a non-issue. None showed any enthusiasm towards this in any part of the state.
- Mining scams, chit-fund scams are not something that majority of the electorate bother about. Local corruption is the issue that resonates with them rather than those major scams.
- Lack of transparency in governance, Odisha being a bureaucratic state, elected representatives lack power. The issues fill the opposition’s agenda are non-issues for the large majority of rural electorates and urban poor.
- This is because people are of the belief that its preferable to have welfare schemes run by bureaucrats rather than corrupt politicians who would siphon away the benefits intended for the poor.
- BJP’s expectation of playing sub-regional and OBC card by projecting Dharmendra Pradhan as its face. Neither sub-regional factor of western Odisha feeling alienated from the mainland coastal Odisha is an electoral factor nor the desired caste line by BJP by projecting Dharmendra Pradhan as its subaltern face has any takers.
- The issue of Naveen Patnaik not speaking Odia and being inaccessible is best summed up by the response of a Dalit girl and a tribal respondent from coastal and southern Odisha: If he is giving us what we need how does it matter whether he speaks Odiya or not… Speeches won’t feel my belly.
People's Perception Towards Political Parties
Despite the setback in the recent Panchayat election and the subsequent comeback in the Baijyapur by-election, the majority of the electorate in all the three regions are endorsing the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor, making the BJD’s dominance irrevocable. The hold of the ruling party is on account of three factors:
- Immensely positive image of Naveen Patnaik
- The massive welfare programs reaching out to majority of the electorates, especially in the rural areas wherein voting percentage is more, that is, up to 75%.
- Crisis of opposition parties to offer a credible alternative.
After the debacle, ruling BJD has taken several steps to improve the image of the government. Now party is giving emphasis on health, education, employment opportunities for the youth, land rights to the slum dwellers, rights of share croppers in the land they cultivate, etc, are some of the important programmes that this government has undertaken to beat anti-incumbency.
But apart from it, it has carefully nurtured and managed many opposition leaders into their fold there by silencing heavy criticism. Recently they have managed to negotiate with media baron Mr Soumya Ranjan Pattnaik into their fold. Mr Pattnaik through his newspaper and other media organisations was a leading voice against the ruling party. Recently they have given some position to Mr Kuna Tripathy, who is a leading anchor in the popular news channel OTV. OTV is owned by Mr. Baijayant Panda, who has resigned from the BJD.
So along with taking up many developmental initiatives, the government has also taken steps to manage the opinion makers.
Limitations of BJD
Based on the people’s response, BJD’s electoral charisma is solely dependent upon the image of Naveen Patnaik. Besides, him there’s no any other MLA or MP from the party whom the respondents vouched for. In fact, there’s deep anti-incumbency against the sitting MLAs and MPs. However, since BJD is known to go for a massive change in candidates, the anti-incumbency at the constituency level is taken care of the party. Nevertheless, the prevailing antiincumbency against majority of the BJD MLAs and MPs despite goodwill for BJD and Naveen Patnaik is a factor that the opposition parties could en-cash to their advantage, by fielding the right candidates. We found that middleclass drifting towards BJP from BJD. The political space for new entrants within the BJD is very limited, as senior BJD leaders promoting their family members.
BJD is losing its ground in western and coastal Odisha. People are not taking seriously the agitations taken by BJD party on Mahanadi issue as BJD supported on several issues to BJP.
Indian National Congress has now reduced to a party with no future. It is now deeply divided with leadership issues and it seems the central leadership is not bothered about the state of affairs in Odisha. Recently they have appointed Mr. Niranjan Patnaik as the Congress Chief. Niranjan Patnaik belongs to the powerful Patnaik Lobby in Odisha. He has mining business and he can afford to spend for his party. But there are two important questions for Congress. First, whether they will be able to challenge BJD in terms of organisation and second how they address the internal conflict within their own party. It seems even with the appointment of Mr. Niranjan Patnaik, leaders like Srikant Jena are not satisfied. But on a positive note, Congress still enjoys the grass root organisation strength and given an opportunity they can bounce back. But the Congress supporters slowly moving towards both BJD and BJP. The strength of Congress in Odisha was its Adivasi vote bank. Now that is slowing moving to BJP. So, it would be interesting to see how Congress manages to win over them.
Going by the prevailing perception across the three regions, Congress has already been written off even by voters who identified themselves with the party. It is widely opined that the grand old party is being replaced by the BJP as the main contender for power against ruling BJD. It must be noted that the perception of electoral decline of Congress is invariably linked to the rise of BJP. That is, people don’t say that BJP is rising because of its organisational base or Modi effect, but rather because of the decline of Congress. Hence, the crisis of Congress is the prevailing perception that the party is very weak in terms of its intention to project itself as the main contender for power leading to BJP filling the vacuum.
Limitations of Congress as Perceived by the people
- Lack of credible local leaders. Perception that party leaders fight with each other than the rival party.
- Perception that many of its leaders are using Congress platform to serve the interest of ruling BJD.
- The persistence of unpopular memory of Congress rule in late 1990s in the wake of devastating cyclone, failure of the party to reach out to the poor.
- Tribal in Western and Southern Odisha who are still sympathetic to Congress perceive that the party is not serious about its electoral prospects leading to a significant section of them perceiving it extremely weak on winning. In general, the perception that Congress’ winnability quotient is extremely weak would lead a great majority of its traditional voters to desert the party as they would consider voting as a wasted effort, causing the BJP to benefit at the expense of the Congress.
- The perception that the party is a sinking ship and many of its notable leaders are either deserting it or are being poached by the BJD and BJP.
- The newly appointed PCC is a step too late to alter the prospect of the party in 2019.
- The perception among a significant section of the electorate that the new PCC president Niranjan Patnaik is a capable leader and had he been appointed a bit earlier Congress’ prospect would have been brightened.
Since the Panchayat polls wherein BJP performed quite impressively, the partyhas succeeded in projecting itself as the prime challenger to the BJD by replacing Congress. In popular perception the party is showing energy as well as interest about the coming election. Opining that its nowhere in a position to pose a serious challenge to the ruling BJD, majority of the voters in all the three regions of the state acknowledges that the BJP would stand second with Congress slipping to third place.
BJP’s Odisha face Mr. Dharmendra Pradhan has adopted some interesting strategy like praising BuxiJagabandu, (the pride of Odia Nationalism), his paika caste, using his ministry for sponsorship to many events in Odisha, and winning over many disgruntled politicians from both BJD and Congress etc. The key to success of BJP in Panchayat elections is that the party successfully projected itself as a better alternative to Congress.
Limitations of BJP as Perceived by the people
- The party lacks a credible state level leadership.
- No religious or communal fault lines as of now.
- There are no takers for Dharmendra Pradhan even in his home turf Deogarh.
- The central government’s policy of demonetization is unpopular among the rural electorate.
- The aggressive style of BJP’s attack on BJD especially against vilifying remark against Naveen Patnaik has not gone well with the people. Amit Shah’s calling Naveen Patnaik as ‘Fata Transformer’ and the in the face campaign of ‘Mission 120 Vs 420’ doesn’t suit the political culture of Odisha. The party’s projected strength doesn’t correspond with the actual ground reality.
- BJP was not identified as a pro-farmer party by majority of the rural respondents when asked to choose a party that is pro-Farmer. Besides, demonetization was offered as one of the policy that added to the agony of the poor and the peasants. This aspect, especially among the rural electorates could be en-cashed against BJP.
As of now based upon people’s projected perception, which is markedly different from the actual strength at present, the following scenario could be inferred:
- BJD has clear lead and extremely strong grip on the electorate for both Assembly and Lok Sabha polls.
- BJP is being considered as the main challenger to BJD.
- Congress lacks purpose and focus.
In this backdrop, the bottom line of the prevailing political dynamic is:
If there is a bipolar contest as is being perceived by the electorate, then BJP would grow at the expense of Congress and would gain ground among urban middle class and tribal areas in western and southern Odisha. If there would be a triangular contest, that is if Congress manages to hold on to its votes among the tribal and other social constituencies, the BJP would slide to the third place, though ruling BJD would be the maximum beneficiary in this case. Hence, Congress has to put up a serious fight to prevent the Odisha contest as one between the BJD and BJP. This is particularly so because it is aspiring to stop Narendra Modi in his tracks at the national level.