Anti-Incumbency On The Prowl: Can Naveen Beat It Again?

Bhubaneswar: If anti-incumbency is the reason for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s surprising electoral reverses in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, should it enthuse the saffron party in Odisha? Or, can Naveen Patnaik buck the trend one more time?

Tuesday’s poll results in five states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram – have triggered discussions on whether it is indicative of things to come in the big elections slated for April, 2019. Many billed it as the ‘semi-final’. If one accepts that, then the Congress is certainly in form. The BJP is on the backfoot. And strong regional parties have managed to retain their turfs.

The improvement in Congress fortunes, going by several political observers, is ironically not due to any great promise that the grand old party holds, but for the anti-incumbency factor going against the Vasundhara Raje (second stint as CM; in power since 2013), Shivaraj Singh Chouhan (in power since 2005) and Dr Raman Singh (in office since 2003) governments. Even the Mizo National Front (MNF) victory in Mizoram is being attributed to anti-incumbency against the Lal Thanhawla-led Congress dispensation (in power since 2008).

If that is assumed to be true, Naveen Patnaik and Co certainly has reasons to worry. Though BJP’s losses are something that should make the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) bosses smile, considering that Congress is not in a good shape in Odisha and the saffron party has emerged as the main challenger to the regional outfit. Particularly, the BJP’s defeat in neighbouring Chhattisgarh should mean good tidings for the BJD in view of the vexed Mahanadi water-sharing issue and Raman Singh and other Chhattisgarh BJP leaders’ role in the 2017 Odisha panchayat elections.

In the rural polls, the BJD’s tally fell from 674 (out of 854) Zilla Parishad seats in 2012 to 473 (out of 846). The BJP seat share jumped from 36 to 297 while the Congress score decreased from 128 to 60.

One should, however, take note of the fact that in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh, it has been a direct fight between the Congress and the BJP; there is no strong regional satrap to reckon with. In Telangana and Mizoram, the triumph of K Chandrasekhar Rao-led Telangana Rashtra Samithi (the only party that could beat anti-incumbency) and MNF underscores that  regional parties are still going strong in their states. This has been the case in Odisha, where the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has gone from strength to strength since its birth in December, 1997, and been in power since March, 2000.

Naveen’s continued success for nearly two decades can be attributed to several reasons, including his perceived ‘Mr Clean’ image, lack of a credible opposition, certain welfare schemes and astute poll management.

However, as he braces up for a historic fifth term in office, quite a few challenges stare him in the face. One, possibly for the first time, the BJD is facing a belligerent rival in BJP (thanks to its stint at the Centre since 2014, it has now got the wherewithal). Two, local anti-incumbency could hit the party’s prospects in certain areas although the CM’s popularity remains quite high. Three, Naveen’s energy levels are not the same as it was in the previous elections. Four, multiple ticket aspirants in different constituencies might lead to dissension, rebellion and sabotage. And, five, the poll triumphs in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh might boost the Congress to make renewed efforts to set its house in order in Odisha.

Considering all these, the BJD certainly has to put its best foot forward to repeat the successes it achieved in 2000, 2004, 2009 and 2014. In fact, post 2017 rural polls setback, the regional party has been leaving no stone unturned to reach out to all categories of voters and rolled out schemes dime a dozen to keep different cohorts in good humour. It has also galvanized its organizational apparatus, after the BJP started making inroads in certain pockets, especially in western parts of the state. However, anti-incumbency, as evident from Tuesday’s election results, would surely play a role in the 2019 simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Odisha. Naveen has effectively warded it off on three previous occasions. Can he do it again?

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