At 23, the Biju Janata Dal is a young political party and an unstoppable election machine. Helmed by Naveen Patnaik, who completed 20 years as chief minister of Odisha, it has remained untouched by anti-incumbency. His party has fended off every big challenge from national outfits, including the formidable Modi wave twice over. Much of its enviable political record is credited to the inscrutable political image of Naveen, his keen understanding of the cultural subtext of Odisha (something the Opposition has failed to decode) and the regional party’s welfare politics. Beyond all this, however, is his ability to put all the poll successes behind and look right ahead. Ten months into his fifth term, the BJD has in place a blueprint for the next electoral challenge — panchayat polls, which is two years from now. And from thereon, the next big one.
In 2017 rural elections, the regional outfit was served a rude surprise by the BJP, which almost made a 10-fold gain in Zilla Parishads. Of the 853 ZP seats, the BJP won 300-plus, from a mere 36 in the previous election. An unhappy Naveen pulled out all the stops, launched a panchayat contact programme through which he dished out projects to every block. The rest, as they say, is history. This time around, the BJD is ready with a much bigger plan that leaves nothing to chance. A close analysis of State Budget 2020-21 would show how the Naveen government is putting all its money (pun intended) on panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). Increased devolution of funds to the three-tier entities has been combined with transfer of key assets. From schools to hospitals, anganwadi centres to lift irrigation points, the ZPs, gram panchayats and panchayat samitis have been entrusted maintenance of these assets, which is a huge move.
How does it translate into numbers? For example, the 853 Zilla Parishads received `23.5 crore as grants from Central Finance Commission and State Finance Commission during 2019-20. In the current financial year, they would be entitled to a whopping `315 crore, which is a 13-times jump. And, we are yet to factor in financial resources to be made available to the PRIs for asset management. In a year’s time, when these PRIs take control of everything from health to rural housing, who are they going to answer is anyone’s guess. The great PRI empowerment plan is closely linked to the BJD’s organisational set-up. Unlike the ideologically driven BJP, the regional outfit has primarily banked on welfarism and freebies instead of strengthening institutions at the grassroots. In the fifth term, Team Naveen is making a course correction. So much so that it does not mind putting all power in panchayat institutions even though it may mean its MLAs end up having lesser stake in these matters.
For five elections, the BJD chief single-handedly carried the weight of his party but now Team Naveen understands that campaigns have to be managed even without its tallest leader. Last panchayat elections, the BJD chief did not campaign and the results were dismal. This time, the plan is to take the message of transformation under its 5T and Mo Sarkar initiatives to every village, school and hospital. There are over 8,800 high schools and 50,000 primary schools in Odisha and the BJD intends to leave its mark in each of them. It’s at the schools people cast their votes and that’s where the focus would be.
A two-decade-old government is sure to develop fatigue among its electorate but Naveen believes the buzz of good governance and putting forward young leaders to take on the mantle can be the prescription. On the 20th anniversary of his government, he announced three-time MLA and former minister Pranab Prakash Das as the organisational secretary of the party, which indicates that his team is willing to share responsibility. But there is still suspense over who will pick up the baton from the 74-year-old leader. When the regional party gets into election mode, we will know for sure.
Deputy Resident Editor, Odisha email@example.com