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Odisha: In Search Of An Alternative Political Narrative


By Gyanaranjan Swain:

A study of the electoral trends in Odisha may offer many interesting perspectives. Since the first general elections held in the country, Odisha has been offering a new trend, which didn’t necessarily toe the line of the national voting pattern. With yet another general elections around the corner, there is a great likelihood that the state may throw some big surprises.

While the BJP at the centre is not sure of achieving a comprehensive victory, the ruling BJD (Biju Janata Dal) in the state may well face an uphill task because of multiple reasons. After the Panchayat elections in the state, it was clear that BJP is a rising force replacing the Congress as the principal opposition party. This general elections will be crucial for the BJD for three reasons. The BJD, for the first time, has consciously used the image of Naveen Patnaik with a smiling face to garner votes. There is no doubt that this has been done to counter the large hoardings of the Prime Minister and some Odia ministers at the Centre. Hence, the message is clear that there is some challenge to Naveen Patnaik this time around and the same is not uncontested. Another challenge is that the party sorely lacks a second line of leadership.

This article makes an attempt to explain why the voters will have a tough time in choosing their candidates. Popular media perception is that the ruling BJD will have an upper hand in the upcoming elections. However, ground reports suggest something else to the extent that the BJD would find it difficult to maintain the same amount of popularity that it had enjoyed in the last general elections. There is no doubt that people are looking for alternatives and it all depends on how both the Congress and the BJP will be able to cash in on the popular sentiments for this  alternative.

BJD chief Naveen Patnaik enjoys an immense popularity in Odisha
Naveen Patnaik’s followers at a rally

First, contrary to the popular perception, the government’s performance in important sectors such as education and health is lacklustre. Though school dropout rate reduced substantially over the last ten years, the performance of state funded schools is discouraging. Over the last two years, 828 Government schools were shut down due to various reasons but mostly because of a low student enrolment rate. Most of these schools are located in tribal areas. Similarly, according to the government’s own admission, there are a total of 8,547 primary and upper primary schools with a student strength of 25 or less each. It suggests that while the mid-day meal scheme has improved school dropout ratio, the perception about government schools has not changed. Poor infrastructure coupled with non-availability of teachers has made the situation worse. Recently, the Delhi government has taken lot of initiatives to improve the state funded educational institutions. The results there over the last two years are encouraging. They have surpassed private schools in board examinations. Odisha Government’s budget gives a very low priority to education and health every year. The condition of higher education in the state isn’t great as well. Half of the faculty positions in universities are lying vacant. Government’s lack of clarity with regard to rules and regulations has made the situation more complicated. State government is not prepared to accept UGC rules as paramount and this results in many court cases. Even in colleges, many categories exist and one does not know which rule will be applied to whom. The government has no vision with regard to education in Odisha.

Similarly, health is another sector where the government has given importance to periphery factors such as insurance schemes. Instead of appointing doctors to all hospitals in remote areas of the state, the state has indirectly promoted private health service institutions by providing insurance of ₹5 lakh to over 3.5 crore people in Odisha. So the government is actually withdrawing itself from basic core areas of governance by just paying some money to private institutions. Recently, the government announced that it will set up twenty hospitals in PPP mode in eleven districts. This decision clearly shows the apathy of state government to use public money for health sector. To legitimise its action, the government has recently announced insurance scheme for journalists. Anyone can guess the reason for such a benevolent step. The bottom line is that instead of addressing structural issues such as growth of infrastructure and  providing quality teachers and doctors, the government is busy promoting education and health entrepreneurs.

Further, corruption has become rampant and many ministers and members of legislative assembly have been allegedly involved in scams. Earlier, The Chief Minister was very quick to take action against corrupt officials. But of late, his actions have been slow and at times, even negligent. The reason can be attributed to the fact that Naveen Patnaik’s grip over the party has reduced substantially and he unable to take measures as he used to earlier.

Recently, BJD decided to remain absent from voting in the no-confidence motion against the NDA government at the Centre. There are two theories which explain this peculiar position of the BJD. First, it is apprehensive of central institutions like CBI and it does not want to anger the central government too much. Second, this ambiguity actually helps BJD to maintain its supremacy at the state. Sometimes, it is opposed to the Congress, and other times to the BJP. But the point is that, in the long run, this is not going to help the party. If BJD wants to stay as a powerful regional party in recent future, it has to evolve its own ideological framework for longer sustenance. Right now it seems that BJD is only interested in retaining power in the state at the cost of even compromising on national issues.

However, all said and done, the moot question is whether the people have credible alternatives to choose. The answer cannot be explained in a plain yes or no. Congress is fighting to save its own house and not long ago there was intense internal struggle to on the election of its PCC chief. After the Panchayat elections, many thought that BJP might emerge as a credible alternative. But future political narrative depends on four things that need to be quickly addressed.

First, core areas of governance such as health and education cannot be neglected. Freebies can give you electoral benefit in the short run, but it has its saturation point: there are enough reasons to strongly believe that Odisha has reached this point.

Second, a credible and honest political leadership must emerge as an alternative. Right now both Congress and BJP have not done so. In BJP circles, the name of one important union minister is being discussed in order to address this problem. But his popularity in the state is yet to be tested. Similarly the PCC chief, who is known for his association with the powerful mining lobby, is yet to get down to the task of galvanising the state unit.

Third, political leadership in Odisha requires fresh minds. The tussle between old and young is growing. Already powerful old generation leaders have voiced their concerns against the young entrants. But the fact is there is a growing number of youth who have shown interest in politics. For them, politics is interesting and there is considerable prestige attached to a political profile. Political parties in Odisha have to do justice to the rising aspirations of the youth; else they have the potential to cause considerable damage to their own party.

Fourth, mass political leadership is one area where the BJD is way ahead of others in Odisha. Both Congress and BJP offer no alternative political leadership with a wide mass appeal. The image of Naveen Patnaik still appeals to the voters. How to tackle this is an issue for rival parties. BJP is trying hard to push some leaders, but only time will tell how popular they are. It is clear that there are opportunities galore for the existence of an alternate political narrative in Odisha. However, it remains to be seen how the opposition parties seize the opportunity to script the narrative.


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