BJP strives to breach BJD fortress in Odisha first phase

Odisha CM’s former aide now the BJP candidate in Berhampur while the BJD nominee recently switched loyalties from the BJP; polling for four Lok Sabha and 28 Assembly seats, most in southern Odisha, on May 13

Updated - May 11, 2024 01:49 am IST

Published - May 10, 2024 06:49 pm IST - BHUBANESWAR

Odisha Chief Minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik files his nomination papers from the Kantabanji Assembly seat, in Balangir.

Odisha Chief Minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik files his nomination papers from the Kantabanji Assembly seat, in Balangir. | Photo Credit: ANI

It is not often that the Bharatiya Janata Party deploys its entire top leadership — including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, and party president J.P. Nadda — to campaign for people’s votes in a single Parliamentary constituency.

Over the past three months, these BJP heavyweights have held separate public meetings in the Berhampur Lok Sabha seat, which lies in Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s home district, as the saffron party makes an audacious attempt to penetrate the fortress of the CM’s Biju Janata Dal.

Berhampur is one of four Lok Sabha seats where polling will take place on May 13, the first phase of the election in Odisha; the other three seats are Kalahandi, Nabarangpur, and Koraput. Along with the general election, 28 Assembly constituencies will also go to the polls simultaneously.

After scrutiny, 37 candidates remain in the fray for the four Lok Sabha seats, while 243 candidates will fight it out for the 28 Assembly segments.

Switched loyalties

The electoral showdown in Berhampur is taking place between Pradeep Panigrahy, formerly a close aide of the Odisha CM, now standing as the BJP candidate, and Bhrugu Baxipatra, who recently switched sides to the BJD after a long association with the BJP. The BJP sees a potential triumph in Berhampur as a blow to the reputation of Mr. Patnaik, the five-time CM, especially in his own home district.

The BJP has never secured victories in Berhampur, Koraput, or Nabarangpur on its own. The party’s last win in the Berhampur constituency was in 1999, but it was in alliance with the BJD at the time. Similarly, Nabarangpur, located in the southernmost part of Odisha, has consistently been held by the BJD since 2014. While the BJP briefly held Nabarangpur in 1999 and 2004, it was only through its alliance with the BJD. Koraput has remained elusive for the BJP throughout its electoral history.

Triangular fight

Apart from Berhampur, Mr. Modi also addressed a public meeting in Nabarangpur, where his party had polled a significant number of votes in past elections. In 2019, BJP candidate Balabhadara Majhi finished in third place, about 50,000 votes behind the BJD’s Ramesh Chandra Majhi. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma too addressed a rally in Malkangiri district, part of the Nabarangpur seat, to woo Bengali Hindu voters. The seat could see a triangular fight between the BJD’s Pradeep Majhi, the BJP’s Balabhadra Majhi and Congress candidate Bhujabala Majhi.

In Koraput, Saptagiri Ulaka, the lone Congress MP from Odisha, faces an uphill task to retain his seat. He faces challenges from both Kausalya Hikaka of the BJD and Kaliram Majhi of the BJP. This traditional stronghold of the Congress was won by the BJD consecutively in 2009 and 2014.

The BJP, which in 2019 had won Kalahandi in western Odisha, has changed its candidate this time to offset allegations of non-performance. To retain its grip, it has turned to Malvika Keshari Deo, a member of Kalahandi’s erstwhile royal family. She will face a tough challenge from the BJD’s Lambodhar Nial, who belongs to the dominant Yadav community. The Congress has reposed its faith in newcomer Draupadi Majhi. However, it is an independent candidate who is drawing much of the attention: Dharmananda Gahir, who quit his job as an assistant professor at Delhi’s Ramjas College, has plunged into electoral politics in order to highlight labour migration issues.

Heavy security

The four parliamentary constituencies, which span a distance of 500 km from one end to the other, were earlier affected by left wing extremism. Though the impact of the outlawed Communist Party of India (Maoist) has now waned, security forces have been mobilized in large numbers for the smooth conduct of the election.

All eyes are on the voting in Swabhiman Anchal, a former bastion of left wing extremism that was mainstreamed following area domination by security forces and an avalanche of welfare schemes in Malkangiri district. Another area of interest is the Kotia group of villages, whose jurisdiction has been claimed by both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh; many voters have announced that they plan to vote for candidates of both States.

Independents in the limelight

As far as Assembly elections are concerned, the profiles of candidates give a fascinating glimpse into aspects of societal representation in the State election. Two independent candidates have stolen the limelight.

Padia Padiami, an electrician by profession, was pushed to fight the election as an independent candidate by villagers from Chimitapalli and other villages nearby, in the Chitrakonda Assembly constituency. He meets election expenses through crowd-funding by the villagers. Dambaru Sisa, who belongs to the Bonda community, a particularly vulnerable tribal group, is also in the fray in Chitrakonda as a BJP candidate.

Suchitra Majhi had filed her nomination as an independent candidate from the Gunupur Assembly seat in order to take forward her anti-mining resistance movement. Independent candidate Siba Prasad Sagadia, who works as a sweeper in a hospital, will challenge big names in the Koraput Assembly constituency.

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