In Sambalpur, BJD stands in way of Pradhan’s comeback

Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan faces a formidable challenge from Biju Janata Dal organising secretary Pranab Prakash Das

Published - May 08, 2024 11:48 pm IST - SAMBALPUR

Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan holds a door-to-door campaign for the Lok Sabha and Assembly Polls, in Sambalpur on May 08, 2024.

Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan holds a door-to-door campaign for the Lok Sabha and Assembly Polls, in Sambalpur on May 08, 2024. | Photo Credit: ANI

Sambalpur in western Odisha is set for a high-octane electoral battle between BJP leader and Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) organising secretary Pranab Prakash Das.

The seat falls in the BJP stronghold of western Odisha where the party has a wide acceptance that is largely attributed to the presence of organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In 2019, BJP candidate Nitesh Gang Deb won the seat by a margin of less than 10,000 votes. The BJD has a robust cadre-based structure that can spoil anyone’s party. Once a formidable force, the Congress now finds itself relegated to the third place.

Having assessed his chances of victory across various constituencies for the past two years, Mr. Pradhan, previously a BJP strategist who has worked in elections in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh, has chosen Sambalpur. His candidature assumes significance as he has returned to direct elections after 15 years during which he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from other States. With the BJP emphasising on its senior leaders getting elected by people this time, Mr. Pradhan chose his home State.

Neither Mr. Pradhan nor Mr. Das hails from Sambalpur. The BJD leader, a three-time MLA, is from Jajpur in coastal Odisha, while the BJP candidate is from Angul district. That said Mr. Pradhan was the last MP from the erstwhile Deogarh Lok Sabha seat. The two assembly seats of Deogarh now fall within the Sambalpur parliamentary constituency after delimitation in 2008.

Despite his high profile, Mr. Pradhan may not be the default frontrunner. As the BJD’s organisational secretary, Mr. Das holds an influential position in the party, second only to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s presidency, and is expected to fiercely contest the polls.

Despite wielding significant influence within the party, Mr. Das did not hold a ministerial position in Mr. Patnaik’s government between 2019 and 2024. Instead, he directed all his efforts towards strengthening the BJD at the grassroots level. His reputation as an organisational stalwart and his frequent interactions with cadres at the ground level would boost his election campaign.

Follow LIVE updates from the Lok Sabha polls 2024 on May 8

The Sambalpur constituency is distinctive in its own right, having been carved out from Sambalpur, Deogarh and Angul districts. Culture and caste compositions vary across its seven assembly constituencies of Sambalpur, Rengali, Rairakhol, Kuchinda, Deogarh, Chhendipada, and Athmalik. In a number of assembly seats, there is a big chunk of voters from the farming community.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s influence holds sway in this region, especially with the consecration of the Ayodhya Ram Temple generating considerable excitement. However, the potency of both these factors seems to be diminishing. This decline is offset by the candidacy of Mr. Pradhan, who has held weighty positions in the Union Cabinet. Many believe that his representation from Sambalpur could result in increased attention to the area’s developmental needs,” said Siba Shankar Nanda, senior journalist and political commentator.

Mr. Nanda, however, did not discount the importance of Mr. Das. “Given the influence of the BJD candidate on the State government, he could also be an asset for Sambalpur. Besides, Odisha Chief Minister in a video message wished Mr. Das victory. It indicated the BJD’s determination to give BJP a tough fight,” he said.

Former Sambalpur MP Bhaabani Shankar Hota, said “the electoral battle between the two candidates is far more complex than it may appear at first glance”.

“Both the parties are struggling to tackle infighting. Some established MLA could face defeat given the changing circumstances. While there was a discernible trend of split voting favouring the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, a similar pattern may emerge this year. However, the BJD must mobilise its resources effectively to cause an upset here.”

Sambalpur votes on May 25 and the outcome holds significant political implications, particularly for Mr. Pradhan. A victory would help strengthen his position in the BJP. A win for Mr. Das could elevate his stature in the party and cement his position after Mr. Patnaik and his close aide V. K. Pandian.

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