While the BJD’s victory in Odisha’s Bijepur Assembly bypoll has not come as a surprise, it’s the landslide mandate its candidate received which has left political pundits baffled. The by-election was supposed to be a much tighter contest given the high-pitched campaign both the BJD and BJP had unleashed, but the outcome suggests otherwise.
With Ritarani Sahu polling a record 1,02,871 votes—about 56 per cent share—Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik has reinforced the fact that he remains the most popular leader in the state. A Congress bastion, Bijepur was won thrice on the trot since 2004 by the Grand Old Party’s Subal Sahu; each time he defeated the ruling BJD’s candidates before his demise last year. In such a scenario, when the BJD pitched Sahu’s widow as its candidate, it was viewed as a strategic error but Naveen has managed to turn it into a masterstroke, yet again.
A win by the BJP would have provided it the much-needed opening to pursue its mission of 120 seats in the state Assembly in 2019. The party left no stone unturned and flew in six union ministers to bolster its campaign but still could not outsmart Naveen. However, by doubling its vote share, the BJP has made a huge statement. It displaced the Congress and has emerged as the clear opposition to the BJD.
The saffron party, though, has much homework to do if it aspires to change its fortunes in Odisha. Its strategy of a stridently negative campaign against Naveen has clearly backfired which proves that non-development and corruption as poll planks are unlikely to work against the BJD chief’s public image. The loss will also mean Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, the party’s face in the state, must introspect why the BJP lost ground though it had a head start after a huge win in Bargarh district during the panchayat elections. The BJD must still keep an ear to the ground and pull up its socks. Because the BJP has put up a much-improved performance and will come hard the next time.