Elections are over. The Naveen Patnaik-led BJD is very much in the saddle winning a historic fifth-term in the Odisha Assembly and is already at work, shaping its agenda for the next five years. The BJP is also on a high, having pocketed eight out of 21 Lok Sabha seats.
But, for the Congress that had dominated the state’s political scene like a colossus for five decades, the worst is yet to come. Even before it could reconcile with the hiding it received in the recent polls, it is staring at an open revolt and possible disintegration. With the first Assembly session after the polls slated to commence in a few days, strong murmurs about several of its MLAs switching sides, akin to Telangana, have begun doing the rounds.
The decline of the Congress started at the turn of the century. And after 2019, the grand old party seems to be in a hurry to disappear. With just nine MLAs and a 16 per cent vote share, it is the worst-ever Congress performance in Assembly elections in Odisha.
Even at height of the anti-Congress mood after Emergency, things did not look so dismal. In the 1977 State Assembly elections, its numbers fell to 26 when the Janata Party stormed to power with 110 seats. But it recovered in three years and regained power for two successive terms from 1980 to 1990 under J B Patnaik. Patnaik fell to Biju Patnaik due to anti-incumbency in 1990 but returned to the helm in the next elections.
The 2019 results have given tell-tale signs that the Congress might be going the Andhra Pradesh way, losing its relevance in Odisha. Things perked up a tad in the aftermath of 2017 panchayat polls, when it received a severe drubbing and was pushed to the third place in Odisha. The party made sincere efforts to revamp the organisation by appointing veteran Niranjan Patnaik as the president. Rahul Gandhi’s multiple visits and its activities appeared to be gaining traction with the people. The victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, particularly the last that borders Odisha, in December added steam. There was a sense that the party was on a path of revival.
But in the run-up to the polls, as the BJD and the BJP clashed in the battlefield, the Congress seemed more in a war with itself. Desertion started and the one-family-one-ticket norm was junked. Things came to such a pass that many leaders and candidates put their weapons down even before the elections and refused to accept party tickets.
Much before this, acute factionalism saw many sitting Congress MLAs quit the party. Also, the Mahila unit head of the Congress resigned alleging manhandling by party workers. The state leadership had all but resigned to its fate of losing the polls. Ahead of the counting day, Niranjan Patnaik agreed the party won’t be able to form the new government. Currently, there is speculation over split in the nine-member Congress legislative party before the Rajya Sabha polls.
So, what’s wrong with the Congress? Coterie politics has been its bane across the country and it is no different in Odisha. For long, the party’s central leadership has been imposing its will on the state unit, completely oblivious to the ground reality while those at the helm have only encouraged factionalism at the cost of internal party democracy. In a party where family is put ahead of party’s interests, fortunes are bound to dwindle.
The Congress might find an excuse in not being able to match the financial might of the BJD or the BJP, but it has not learnt from history either. History shows that the Congress has done well under a strong leader. Every time a J B Patnaik was put in charge, he delivered. In the last 20 years, the grand old party has forgotten to cultivate its own leaders, groom young faces, failed to listen to the voters’ voice and has been too self-indulgent.
Like a leader said, “We are losing because we don’t give hope to the voters anymore, like a Modi or Naveen does.” Till the party big bosses understand this, there is no hope for the Congress.