With less than two months to go for the elections in Odisha ~ both Lok Sabha and Assembly ~ the permanently backward western segment has emerged as an area of riveting concern to Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister and president of the ruling Biju Janata Dal. While this concern for the aggrieved is usually integral to the electoral stakes, the move is critical as Mr Patnaik has signalled his intent to contest the Assembly election from a constituency in the western belt, where tribals predominate amidst the chronic poverty and woeful lack of development. The fact that he is “seriously considering” the proposal is, therefore, bathed in symbolism. It is early days to speculate on whether his recent decision on 33 per cent of the nominations to women will tilt the scales in the subaltern belt; but it is pretty obvious that the BJD president has reacted to the inroads effected by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party in this swathe of Odisha. Both parties appear to be exploiting the backwardness in their campaign against the ruling party whose government has impressed the country in terms of investment. This is the bitter irony of Odisha as it gears up for the twin elections.
The economic development has been partial at best and neglectful at worst. Going by the meeting of western Odisha’s BJD leaders in Bhubaneswar over the weekend, the Chief Minister will contest from his home turf of Hinjli in Ganjam and Bijepur ~ both far removed from the glitzy state capital with its multiple-lane thoroughfares and shopping malls. The BJD president’s statement of intent would suggest that “farmers, women and students have requested me to contest from a constituency in the western region”. As it turns out, he is considering the proposal “very seriously”, indeed to be the bulwark against the ascendancy of the Congress and the BJP.
Recent developments cannot but be unnerving for the BJD, not least the impressive performance of the BJP in western Odisha in the 2017 panchayat elections. No less significant were Rahul Gandhi’s successive visits to the region and crucially in the company of the Chhattisgarh chief minister, Bhupesh Waghel ~ the Congress leader who now helms the government in the neighbouring state. Mr Patnaik is acutely aware that the two parties have made inroads into the region at the cost of the ruling BJD. Neglect and relentless poverty have boomeranged on the incumbent dispensation. Which alone would explain his decision to contest from the region.
On closer reflection, this is a strategic shift, and on test will be the psephological preference of the subaltern. Chiefly, the generally effective Chief Minister will have to countenance dissension within his own party as the five-time MLA from Berhampore wants to throw his hat into the ring once again. Still more acute is the disaffection of farmers, many of whom have committed suicide even in the rice bowl of Bargarh district. All in all, western Odisha is a hot potato.