All eyes are on the BJD and BJP as the bypoll to the Bijepur Assembly constituency in Odisha’s Bargarh district draws closer. For the ruling BJD, it is a matter of prestige. The regional outfit, despite going from strength to strength in the past elections, has not been able to wrest back the seat after 2000. With the BJP breathing down its neck and the next general elections not far away, the BJD clearly has more than an Assembly seat at stake. On the other hand, for the BJP which has shown signs of resurgence and been making a great deal of noise about its Mission 120 for the 2019 Assembly polls, Bijepur presents an opportunity to prove that its claims are not just rhetoric.
However, if the bypoll holds serious significance to any party, it is to the Congress. This is not just because the constituency was a Congress bastion. Before passing away in last August, Congress’ Subal Sahu was an unmovable object at Bijepur. In 2014, when the BJD landed a historic mandate by securing 117 seats in the 147-member Assembly, Sahu managed to defeat ruling party heavyweight Prasanna Acharya, although by a slender margin of 458 votes. For a party riddled with chronic infighting and pushed to the third spot in the 2017 panchayat elections, this would be a chance to regroup.
Its fortunes improved in the Gujarat Assembly elections and after the clean sweep in the recent bypolls in Rajasthan, the party stands bolstered.
The Congress leadership clearly senses it has a chance to build on the resentment brewing slowly against the NDA government. If it has to make a fight for 2019, the party has to focus on Odisha, where it has squandered its stronghold to the BJD in the last two decades. And Bijepur could be the starting point. The BJD has already stolen a march by poaching Sahu’s widow to pocket voters’ sympathy while the BJP has fielded a former BJD MLA. But if the Odisha Congress can rise above factionalism and throw its weight behind its candidate Pranaya Sahu, a new face, it certainly can make a difference.