Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become an enigma to Odisha. His contrariety has mystified the people and perplexed his party organisation in the state. The frequent flier to Odisha is well understood in the election year in the context of the BJP’s ‘Focus East’ policy, but sparing the main rival of the trademark Modi punches after landing on the soil has set a conundrum.
Modi will be back in Odisha on Tuesday, his third visit in three weeks. But none even hazards a guess on his approach — that in Jharsuguda in September last year, when he launched an all-out onslaught on Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and the BJD government, or in December, when he attacked the state government but did not even utter the name of Naveen, or early this month, when he further softened to what can best be qualified as criticism, not attack, of the BJD state government.
While observers are grappling with the change of tack, with many claiming he is leaving the fight midway to keep Naveen, a possible post-poll ally, in good humour, there is more than meets the eye. The Modi-Shah combine is not one to give the game up so easily, that too in a state where it has a genuine possibility of gaining numbers.
The recent Assembly election setbacks and the emergence of strong fronts like the SP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh, along with the possibility of a mahagathbandhan in other states, have necessitated re-engineering of poll strategies for the BJP. After the successful annexation of the Northeast, the BJP is now banking on the East, having stood on the margins for far too long. In Odisha, the BJP had been down and out after the BJD snapped ties in 2009. Even the Modi wave of 2014 could not breach the Naveen citadel.
The pendulum swung in the 2017 panchayat polls with the BJP registering an unexpected surge and emerging the main challenger to the BJD. Party chief Amit Shah did not lose time in coining the Mission 120+ slogan for Odisha. And Modi did lend his weight by his searing attack on Naveen and his government at Cuttack, Talcher and Jharsuguda last year. That was then. His next two pit stops at Khurda and Baripada presented a completely different story.
A soft Modi has put his state party unit in a fix, but there could be a larger gameplan ahead. One presumes the new approach is to make inroads and gain the numbers without antagonising the opponent.
Also, the BJP cannot afford to have more foes. Naveen’s BJD may have been sitting in opposition but has been a stronger friend than allies in times of need for Modi. The BJP needs to be acceptable to possible allies and the BJD is one of them.
On the other hand, the BJP cannot simply let go of the opportunity Odisha offers. Modi now seems to be banking on the ongoing big bang schemes and those to be announced soon to get the numbers. Schemes like Ujjwala made an impact in Odisha, but not to the extent of swaying voters towards the BJP. The recently-unveiled 10 per cent reservation for upper castes will also not matter much as Odisha doesn’t vote on caste lines.
But, the Universal Basic Income (UBI) scheme, the Centre’s next big bang announcement, can be a game changer. Assured monthly income and direct transfer of cash to the poor’s account every month has the potential to swing elections. A special package for farmers and the expected income tax relief for the middle class, too, can be influencing factors.
Yet, at the party level, leaders and workers are confused as the perception of a BJP-BJD understanding grows among the public. Modi’s visit to Balangir on January 15 is what everyone is looking towards to, to get a final sense of his strategy. Amit Shah will be visiting soon after on January 18.
The BJP’s confusion ought to be soothing for Naveen, but he is unrelenting. He has combined political aggression against the BJP with rank populism, converting the government into one-scheme-a-day machine. Odisha is shaping up into an intriguing electoral battle.