High profile former MP, Baijayant Panda, faces perhaps the toughest test of his political career as he seeks re-election from Kendrapara parliamentary constituency on a BJP ticket after a seven-month struggle to join the saffron party.
It is for the first time in 20 years that he will be fighting elections without the “Biju” tag which is considered crucial in Kendrapara.
After he quit the BJD, he had tried to cling on to the tag by claiming to be a founder member of the BJD, which he, apparently is not.
On joining the BJP, he again said that the BJP had helped in the formation of the BJD which was another bloomer.
Both these attempts to somehow retain the “Biju” brand fell flat and have not gone down well with the voters here.
He had lobbied hard to overcome the stiff resistance for months to enter the BJP. And though he won the initial battle, it was not without the damage done to his image.
Panda’s entry to the BJP came about just when, in sheer desperation, he had accused the party leadership of being “soft” on Naveen Patnaik and when he had started negotiating with the Congress.
Panda had also started negotiating with the Congress leaders with a proposal that he would contest the Kendrapara LS seat as an independent with the support of the party which the party rejected.
He finally turned the table around, allegedly with the help of a big corporate house, to get inducted to the BJP, secure a party ticket, and above all, become the vice-president and national spokesperson of the party.
Now, with a new party, its lotus symbol, and newfangled cadres, it remains to be seen whether Panda will manage to achieve the hat-trick of victories from the politically sensitive Kendrapara Lok Sabha seat.
Panda was elected to the Lok Sabha twice from the Kendrapara seat in 2009 and 2014. He was also a two time Rajya Sabha MP from 2000 to 2009 due to his proximity to Naveen Patnaik.
He fell out of favour and was suspended from the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD last year on charges of anti-party activities. Later, he resigned from the party as well as from the Lok Sabha.
The Congress and the BJD are yet to announce their candidates to lock horns with Panda. Battle lines are yet to be drawn. But the poll fever is slowly infecting the LS seat that is spread across Kendrapara and Cuttack district.
BJP’s grass root base in Kendrapara Lok Sabha constituency is in poor shape, more so after veteran politician, Bijoy Mahapatra was sidetracked from the party affairs.
This may prove to be the undoing for Panda, according to political analysts.
A veteran politician, Mahapatra had invigorated the BJP by mobilizing party cadres. Under his leadership, BJP could win 10 Zilla Parishad seats in 2017 panchayat polls.
The saffron party was steadily making inroads into the BJD vote bank when Mahapatra was sidelined inexplicably by a particular BJP leader who calls the shots in Odisha BJP.
Regardless of the fielding of high-profile candidature, BJP’s cadre base presence at booth level is much to be desired, they said.
It’s too early to assess Panda’s winnability prospect. However, Panda has some plus points, thanks to his decade long tenure as Kendrapara MP.
He judiciously used MPLADs fund, spending it for drinking water project and construction of mini-stadiums.
However, his corporate style of functioning had drawn the ire of cadres when he was in BJD. He often interacts with common people during constituency visits but not so with the party workers. Panda depends on his own staff more than the party workers. He is more of a Delhi-TV panellist politician and not a ground level leader.
Not many in the BJP are happy with Panda’s candidature. He lacks political acumen and he does not recognise political workers, said a BJP panchayat level leader.
Already there is the talk of BJP workers here tacitly joining ranks with the BJD to defeat Panda as his growth will be a threat to others who have climbed up the ladder at the central party level.
For the high flying former MP, it is going to be a tough task as the BJD will exercise its entire might to defeat him plus the fact that a section of the BJP would also like to see him lose the polls.