BJP, a different kind of opponent

As the BJP eyes States such as Odisha, it has to shape its politics relative to dominant regional parties

Published - May 13, 2017 12:02 am IST

The recent cabinet reshuffle in Odisha by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik seems to be clearly aimed at preparing his Biju Janata Dal (BJD) for the impending clash with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the State. In advance preparation for the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP is already looking towards expansion in new States, with Odisha being one on them. But the task may not be as easy as the BJP may think.

True, when the elections will be held in 2019, the ruling BJD would be facing an anti-incumbency of two decades but this may not be enough for the BJP to stage a victory in Odisha. The BJP may get a larger share of the anti-BJD votes, but some of these votes would get transferred to the Congress as well. The Congress may no longer be a strong political force in the State but only a Delhi-like decline of the party can clear the way for BJP to emerge victorious.

Road ahead

There is hardly any doubt that the BJP is on an expansion mode in Odisha and is gaining popularity. Trends from the local body election clearly indicate that the BJP cannot be dismissed as a marginal player in State politics. For the first time in many years, the BJD faced stiff competition in the local body polls. While the BJD led in the civic polls, the BJP stood second by winning 297 Zila Parishad seats out of 853. The Congress was a distant third, winning only 60 seats. These results seem to indicate that the BJP has already replaced the Congress as the principal alternative to the BJD in the State. In 2019, the BJD would have been in power for close to two decades. It is expected to face greater anti-incumbency, in the face of allegations of corruption against Mr. Patnaik’s government and infighting in the party.


Nonetheless, the BJP faces an uphill task in Odisha. It needs to increase its vote share significantly if it wants to defeat the BJD. In the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, the BJP’s vote share was lower than the Congress’s. The BJD’s vote share in the Legislative Assembly (43%) was almost equal to the combined vote share of the BJP (18%) and the Congress (26%). This indicates that a mere shift of a section of Congress voters may not be enough for the BJP. Support among Adivasis is critical for any party in Odisha as they constitute more than a fifth of the State’s population. Data from post-poll surveys conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in the State show that support for the BJP has been relatively lower amongst the Adivasis as compared to upper castes and OBCs. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, less than a fifth of the Adivasis (18%) had voted for the BJP, slightly lower than the party’s overall vote share. Though the BJP did well in some tribal-dominated districts such as Malkangiri and Kalahandi in the civic polls, a lot more needs to be done by the party. The BJP’s performance would depend a lot on whether its leaders from the State, Union Ministers Dharmendra Pradhan and Jual Oram are able to match Mr. Patnaik’s popularity. Also, drawing lessons from its own victory in Assam, the BJP would know that on-ground organisational presence across the State is a critical factor. Currently, its organisational network in Odisha is relatively weak and inadequate for taking on the BJD. For instance, in the local body polls, the party was able to appoint booth-level teams in only about 35,000 out of the State’s 92,000 polling booths.

A small increase

Though difficult, it may still be possible for the BJP to expand in Odisha, but in the other major States where the BJP hopes to make inroads on its own, namely West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the task may be far more difficult. In West Bengal, the party has performed well in some bypolls held after the 2014 Lok Sabha election but failed to consolidate these gains in the 2016 Assembly elections. At the moment, it seems that the rise of the BJP would only lead to a division of the anti-TMC votes in the short run and end up helping the Trinamool in holding on.

In Tamil Nadu, the ‘third front’ built by the party in the 2014 Lok Sabha election collapsed before the 2016 Assembly elections and it received just around 3% of the votes when it contested on its own. The BJP replicated its 2014 Lok Sabha performance in the Kerala Assembly election and managed to open its account in the legislative assembly. But with just around 11% of the votes, it remains far behind both the UDF and LDF. It is evident that despite some positive developments, there may not be any dramatic change in the BJP’s performance in these States.

In the recent past the BJP has managed to win elections in many States with the clarion call for a ‘Congress-Mukt Bharat’. With the presence of strong regional alternatives in all these States where BJP is eying expansion in 2019, an anti-Congress sentiment will not be enough. The BJP needs to convince the voter why it can offer better governance than both the Congress as well as the dominant regional parties.

Sanjay Kumar is Professor and currently the director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Pranav Gupta is Researcher with Lokniti-CSDS

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