In the recent urban and rural local body elections in Odisha, the principal Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered a severe setback, even as the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) swept the polls again. In the three-tier panchayat elections held in February, the BJP won 42 Zilla Parishad seats, down from 297 it had bagged in the 2017 polls. In the March urban local body (ULB) polls, the saffron party could manage to get just 16 out of 105 ULBs.
The Odisha BJP’s president Samir Mohanty, however, describes his party’s performance in these polls as “satisfactory”. In an interview with The Indian Express, he talks about various issues including the saffron party’s plans and preparations for the 2024 Lok Sabha and state Assembly polls. Excerpts:
BJP suffered a serious blow in the recent polls following its promising results in the 2017 rural local body polls as well as the 2019 Parliamentary and Assembly elections? How has the party assessed its current losses?
We have been scrutinizing our performance, district and constituency-wise. The results must also be assessed from the point of view of vote share. In 2019, our vote share was 38 per cent in Parliamentary elections and 32 per cent in the simultaneously-conducted Assembly polls.
In the recent local body polls, the BJP’s vote share was 30.7 per cent. But, we are assessing our bottlenecks. Unlike earlier times, it was a new type of election, which everybody was not familiar with. (In the three-tier panchayat elections, it was for the first time that votes were counted centrally at the block headquarters for three days. In urban local body elections, for the first time direct elections took place for the posts of chairpersons and mayors) . Our work was not election-driven but for the people. The elections were held for over 90,000 wards and over 6,000 panchayats…the exercise was massive and our party workers did not know the new system. We also raised complaints, but the government officials did not cooperate at the micro level.
Even during the Covid pandemic, our party workers were out on the road, working…unlike other political parties, who were in isolation. Our party was not working with election in mind but with a sense of serving the people.
On December 14, 2021, the Odisha State Election Commission was supposed to finalise the panchayat poll dates, but it was deferred to December 18, and was eventually notified in January. This delayed the process of finalizing of the voters list. During this period, however, the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD government, while being aware of these dates, extended the Covid aid to the people just ahead of the polls. Despite all odds, our performance was satisfactory though.
There was a sense of dissatisfaction among the BJP workers who attributed these reverses to the absence of the central party leaders from the poll campaign. What is your take?
Parliament was in session during that time that kept our central leaders and MPs occupied. Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who is very popular among our party workers and knows our roadmap here, was given the responsibility of UP elections. Due to these factors, which were of national importance, they could not spare time in the state. But they had spent some time during the elections here, our vote share could have been better.
The results of these polls established that Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik continues to be popular among the Odisha masses. How would the BJP challenge the BJD’s continued growth?
In his fifth term as the CM, Naveen Patnaik has lost his credibility. The law minister (Pratap Jena) continues to occupy his post in the Cabinet and the party even after a judicial magistrate of first class court directed the police to investigate the minister’s role in a double-murder case.
From day one, we have been holding the BJD government and their leaders accountable for failing to implement the centrally-sponsored schemes and disburse among people. During 2015-2020, the money provided under the 14th Finance Commission was not utilised for the people but for corruption. The state government completely fails at the level of execution. For instance, take MGNREGA. Odisha saw a huge influx of its people in the state during the pandemic. MGNREGA wages were also increased, 200 mandays were assured. But the state government failed to implement it. The government failed to retain these people, who have resorted to migration again.
The party (BJD) uses people below the poverty line for vote bank politics, but does not empower them. Farmers, women…all of them are merely a vote bank for them. The state government has only resorted to copy-paste politics enabling more corruption. And we have been trying to bring this farce to the fore.
Despite the BJP being the main Opposition in Odisha, there is a widespread perception about the amiable bond between the BJP and the BJD at the central level, which affects the party’s prospects in the state. How do you see this?
This is a false political narrative. We are the only party in Odisha which has constantly registered a growth. From 0.6 percent votes and a single seat in 1985 to the current stage, the party has only seen growth in the state. Had this narrative been true, why are our party members being killed in political violence, why are they sent to jail on baseless claims? In this federal structure of government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never kept a narrow political outlook. The BJP has always been pro-people and pro-poor, and the party is only concerned about that.
One of the contentious issues between the BJP and the BJD has been their competing claims for credits over various government schemes for the masses. What is the BJP’s position on the issue?
The schemes are always duplicated but never executed well. And because of this, the people suffer. Because of the lackadaisical execution of the schemes in the state, there is huge corruption. BJP MLAs and MPs have raised this issue multiple times. The central government teams have visited the state to survey discrepancies in housing and agricultural schemes. Reports submitted by these teams to the chief secretary expose corruption to the tune of Rs 1,000 crore in the execution of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna in the state, but no action is taken ever. The Prime Minister himself had asked for the implementation of the Ayushmaan Bharat scheme, but this health scheme is yet to be implemented in Odisha. The state runs on faulty policies.
How is the BJP preparing for the 2024 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Odisha?
Our political narrative is about empowering people in a true sense. Our poll strategy will be to spread awareness among people against the Patnaik government’s mismanagement on issues like electricity, Dalit and tribal rights…But ultimately, the people of Odisha will decide.