BJP’s bid to wrest Padampur prompts Naveen Patnaik to come out in the open

The next assembly election in Odisha is due in 2024 and the ruling party is comfortably placed with an unassailable majority. Yet, the byelection for the Padampur seat in the assembly, which was won comfortably by Naveen Patnaik’s party in 2019, has acquired unusual significance; the reason being the Bharatiya Janata party’s all-out efforts to wrest the seat.

In the 147-member Odisha Assembly, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has 112 members and the BJP 24. When the somewhat reclusive Odisha chief minister addressed three election rallies at Padampur, 400 kms from Bhubaneswar, on the last day of campaigning before Sunday’s byelection, it fuelled speculation.

The last time Naveen Patnaik physically addressed an election rally was also in a byelection in 2019. Since the pandemic, however, he had been addressing political rallies online. But then Padampur seat was won by the BJD in 2019 and losing it in a byelection would send the signal that BJD’s hold over the state is weakening. That is precisely what BJP is claiming. The popularity of the chief minister and the ruling party is on the decline, they maintain, and Friday’s rallies addressed by him were the last desperate attempts by him to turn the tide.

The Biju Janata Dal last month lost the byelection for the Dhamnagar Assembly seat to the BJP; while BJP had won the seat in 2019 also, in the byelection it increased the margin of victory from around four thousand to nine thousand, which would have set alarm bells ringing in the BJD.

Most political observers believe that infighting within the ruling BJD led to the party’s loss. They also point out that over the past few years the Odisha chief minister had allowed the next generation of leaders in his party to take over the task of campaigning and management.

The increased margin of loss may have finally convinced him to take back the reins once again. BJP leaders claim the victory at Dhamnagar with an increased margin indicate that BJP’s popularity in the state is on the upswing and Dharmendra Pradhan’s efforts were bearing fruit.

Patnaik, observers say, may also have felt the need to put to rest the usual whisper campaign about his allegedly failing health which surfaces before every election. But they agree that if BJP manages to wrest the Padampur seat from the BJD, it would be the first byelection since 2009 that Naveen Patnaik’s party will lose. More importantly, it would give momentum to BJP’s efforts to unseat the BJD in the next assembly election in 2024.

But BJP retaining the Dhamnagar seat was not unexpected. Its candidate rode on a sympathy wave as the by-election was necessitated following the death of his father and incumbent BJP MLA Bishnu Charan Sethi. Secondly, the assembly segment in Bhadrak district has long been one of the few fortresses of the saffron party in coastal Odisha.

Patnaik despatched his entire cabinet to manage the campaign at Padampur after awarding ticket to Barsha Singh Bariah, daughter of MLA and former minister Bijay Ranjan Singh Bariah whose death necessitated the by-election in the constituency. Clearly, he is taking no chances.

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