Edge-of-the-seat thriller in the offing as Dilip Tirkey tries to dribble past Jual Oram

BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik has fallen back on Dilip -after dropping him from candidature in 2019- to unseat Jual, who is seeking his sixth victory to end his electoral politics on a high note.
Edge-of-the-seat thriller in the offing as Dilip Tirkey tries to dribble past Jual Oram
Express illustration: Mandar Pardikar.

ROURKELA : A rerun of an epic fight is in the offing in Odisha’s reserved Sundargarh Lok Sabha constituency where BJP stalwart and sitting MP Jual Oram (63) has locked horns with Indian hockey legend Dilip Tirkey (46) of the BJD.

The former Union tribal affairs minister and the present Hockey India president have been old rivals with Jual edging past Dilip in a triangular contest that also featured former chief minister Hemanand Biswal of the Congress in 2014. Dilip was surprisingly dropped in 2019 and the BJD fielded Biswal’s daughter Sunita against Jual but failed to gain any traction.

This time, BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik has fallen back on Dilip to unseat Jual who is seeking his sixth victory to end his electoral politics on a high note. The sitting MP, one of the most prominent tribal leaders in the BJP, has already made his “last election” an emotional campaign pitch along with the overriding Modi factor. “It is my last election. After 35 years in electoral politics, I intend to make way for the new generation,” Jual says.

In Dilip, a Catholic Christian and inarguably the greatest sports icon of Odisha, the BJD has sought to address multiple sections of the voters even though the previous attempt had failed. Sundargarh district has been considered the cradle of hockey in India. For the majority tribal population, hockey is a way of life, especially the tribal Christians.

Rising from the interiors of the district to make way into the Indian national team and become the captain, bringing laurels to the country in many international tournaments, Dilip has been a matter of pride for the people of the region. But that, somehow, has not translated into the electoral backing for him.

This year, however, has the potential for an edge-of-the-seat thriller. In a well-thought strategy to register its first-ever win from Sundargarh, the BJD government had laid out the stage five years ago to cash in on the people’s craze for hockey. The government had constructed the world’s largest Birsa Munda international hockey stadium at Rourkela and successfully co-hosted the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup (HWC) last year.

Simultaneously, astro-turf hockey training centres were constructed in all 17 blocks of Sundargarh.

The BJD’s strategy appears to be to pull maximum hockey-loving and Christian voters through Dilip. It has targeted other segments of voters on Naveen Patnaik’s popularity, the plank of development works and politics of doling out goodies to all. Dilip also never forgets to remind voters about Naveen’s contribution to hockey and development of sports, including infrastructure and facilities in the district.

“Under his leadership Odisha has been witnessing rapid all-round development, economic growth and welfare of the people. The people’s overwhelming love for our CM is all pervasive. The BJD will win the LS and all seven Assembly seats under it,” he asserts.

Dilip Ray’s return to BJP a boon for Jual Oram

The BJD draws confidence from the fact that in 2022, it won 33 of 35 Zilla Parishad seats and two urban local bodies (ULB). Still, it is too much of an ask for the BJD, especially when Assembly and LS voting patterns are altogether different from local polls. However, the regional outfit’s bid to penetrate the BJP’s traditional bastion is fraught with tough challenges as the former Union minister is firmly holding his ground. The tribals have been with the BJP since the 1990s, hence Jual’s record of winning five of six elections with two tenures as Cabinet minister.

When the BJP was a non-entity in Odisha in 1990, Jual was one of the only two MLAs in the state winning from Bonai segment under the LS constituency. He repeated the victory in 1995. In 1998, he won the LS seat with a lead of over 1.26 lakh votes, and in 1999, he returned to Parliament with a more emphatic victory.

Jual became the first tribal affairs minister in the country, as a separate ministry was created by the Vajpayee government. He won the 2004 LS election but suffered a shock defeat to Hemanand in 2009.

He bounced back in 2014 and returned as the tribal affairs minister in the Modi government. Though not been made a minister in 2019, Jual has been one of the seniormost leaders of the BJP with a formidable following. There are multiple factors in his favour. First and foremost is the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Droupadi Murmu, a tribal woman from Odisha, becoming the President of India has as fuelled positive sentiments among the tribals here while the various welfare programmes of the Modi government has created a committed “labharthi” base as seen in other parts of the country.

Moreover, there is a perceptible undercurrent for the BJP over the Ram temple issue, thanks to the deep inroads made by the RSS and its affiliates in the region. Expressing confidence in his victory, Jual summed up his challenger saying, “Dilip is like my younger brother and a former star international hockey player. But, he lacks experience and is relatively novice in electoral politics.”

On the political front, the return of former Union minister of coal Dilip Ray to the BJP and contest from Rourkela has come as a boon for Jual. The LS seat has about 15.67 lakh registered voters and about 7.99 lakh are tribal voters, including Christians. Christian and Muslim voters account for about around 2.85 lakh and 75,000, respectively. They have been traditionally wooed by the Congress and BJD. Dilip is likely to corner a majority of the non-Hindu votes and the rest would go to the Congress candidate Janardan Dehury.

Dehury, ex-MLA of Bonai and president of the Sundargarh District Congress Committee, is far behind in the race. There are about 3 lakh voters of Bhuiya tribe, which had been a mainstay vote bank of the Congress, but since last 15 years they have drifted to the BJP and BJD. The BJP, however, has relied on Hindu and non-convert tribal voters.

‘Undercurrent for the BJP over Ram temple’

There is a perceptible undercurrent for the BJP over the Ram temple issue, thanks to the deep inroads made by the RSS and its affiliates in the region. Other factors in favour of BJP are popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Droupadi Murmu, a tribal woman from Odisha, becoming the President of India and various welfare programmes.

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