Electoral studies in Odisha has many interesting facets. Since the first general election, the state has not toed the national pattern of voting. With general elections around the corner, there is a great likelihood of the state throwing up big surprises in the upcoming polls.
While at the Centre, the BJP is not sure of a comprehensive win, the ruling BJD in Odisha may face an uphill task due to many reasons. After the Panchayat elections, it was clear the BJP is a rising force replacing the Congress as the main opposition party. The upcoming polls will be crucial for the BJD. The party, for the first time, has consciously used the image of a smiling Naveen Patnaik to garner votes. The BJD has no doubt done this to counter the big hoardings of the PM and some ministers from Odisha at the Centre. But the message is clear: there is a challenge to CM Naveen this time. Further, the BJD sorely lacks a second line of leadership.
The popular perception is that the BJD will have an upper hand in the upcoming polls. But ground reports suggest it would find it difficult to maintain the same level of popularity it enjoyed in the last general election. People are looking for alternatives and it all depends on how the BJP and Congress can cash in on the popular sentiment for an alternative.
First, contrary to perception, the government’s performance in important sectors like education and health is lacklustre. Though school dropout rates have decreased substantially over the last 10 years, the performance of state-funded schools is discouraging. In the last two years, 828 government schools have been closed mostly due to low student enrolment. Most of these are located in tribal areas. According to the government’s own admission, there are 8,547 primary and upper primary schools with a student strength of 25 or less.
It suggests that while the mid-day meal scheme has improved the school dropout ratio, the perception about government schools has not changed. Poor infrastructure and non-availability of teachers have made it worse. The state of higher education in Odisha is also bad. Half of the faculty positions in universities are vacant. The government’s lack of clarity on rules has further complicated the situation. It is not prepared to accept UGC rules as paramount and this results in court cases. Even in colleges, many categories exist; one does not know which rule will be applied to whom. The government has no vision for Odisha’s education.
Similarly, in healthcare, the government has given importance to peripheral factors like insurance schemes. Instead of providing doctors to hospitals in remote areas, it has indirectly promoted private healthcare institutions by providing insurance of `5 lakh to over 3.5 crore people. So it is withdrawing itself from the core areas of governance. The government recently announced it would set up 20 hospitals in PPP mode in 11 districts.
This shows its reluctance to use public money for the health sector. It recently announced an insurance scheme for journalists. One can guess the reason behind the benevolent step. The budget every year gives very low priority to education and health. Instead of addressing structural issues like infrastructure, quality teachers and doctors, the government is busy promoting education and health entrepreneurs.
Corruption has become rampant; many ministers and MLAs are allegedly involved in scams. Earlier, the CM was quick to take action against corrupt officials. But of late, it has been slow and at times, even no action is taken. The likely reason: Naveen’s grip over the party has substantially reduced. So he is not able to take actions as he used to earlier.
Recently, the BJD decided to abstain from voting in the no-trust motion against the NDA government at the Centre. There are two theories to explain the BJD’s peculiar position. One, it is apprehensive of central institutions like the CBI and does not want to anger the Centre too much. Two, this ambiguity helps it maintain its supremacy in Odisha. Sometimes, it is opposed to the Congress, sometimes the BJP. But in the long run, this is not going to help the party. If the BJD wants to stay as a powerful regional party, it has to evolve its own ideological framework. Right now it seems the BJD is only interested in retaining power in the state even at the cost of compromising on national issues.
All said and done, the question is whether people have credible alternatives. The answer is not a simple yes or no. The Congress is fighting to save its own house. Not long ago there was an intense internal struggle over the PCC chief’s post. After the panchayat polls, many thought the BJP might emerge as an alternative. But the future political narrative depends on three things that need to be quickly addressed.
First, the core areas of governance cannot be neglected. Freebies give an electoral benefit in the short run, but have their saturation point.
There are enough reasons to believe Odisha has reached this point. Second, a credible and honest political leadership must emerge as an alternative. Right now, it is not the case with both the BJP and Congress. In BJP circles, the name of a top union minister is being discussed. But his popularity in Odisha is yet to be tested. Similarly, the PCC chief, known for his association with the powerful mining lobby, is yet to get down to the task of galvanising the state unit. Third, the political leadership in Odisha requires fresh minds.
Powerful old leaders have voiced their concerns over younger entrants. But there is a growing number of youth in politics. Political parties have to respect the aspirations of the youth; else they have the potential to cause considerable damage to their own parties.
Mass political leadership is one area where the BJD is way ahead. Naveen’s image still appeals to voters. Both the Congress and BJP offer no alternative political leadership with wide mass contact. The BJP is trying hard to push some leaders. Time will tell how popular they are. It is clear there are opportunities galore for the existence of an alternative political narrative in Odisha. But it remains to be seen how the opposition parties seize this chance.
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Ravenshaw University