Patnaik’s popularity remains undiminished, and BJP knows it can only challenge him by riding on the shoulders of the PM’s iconic image, reports Archis Mohan.
Larger-than-life cutouts of Prime Minister Narendra Modi compete for space with those of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his legendary father Biju Patnaik at traffic intersections and pedestrian pathways of the wide and leafy roads of Odisha’s capital, hosting a three-day Bharatiya Janata Party national executive meeting that started on Friday.
Modi and Patnaik will also contend for space in social media and on local television channels and newspapers.
The Patnaik-led government, mostly seen as laidback about self-promotion, has woken up after the BJP’s success in the recent panchayat polls. It has launched a propaganda war to showcase its achievements and to counter the Modi government’s claims of having rolled out sundry schemes for Odisha’s poor and youth.
The political battle has seldom been this sharply contested after Patnaik first led the Biju Janata Dal to victory in the year 2000. Patnaik’s BJD and the BJP were allies until 2009. After the Kandhamal riots he parted ways.
On Friday, the BJP displaced the Congress as the main opposition to Patnaik’s party.
"We have achieved our objective of making the BJP the number two party in Odisha. We believe BJP will become the ‘natural party of governance’ in the state by 2019,” Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who has emerged as the BJP’s Odisha face, said.
The hosting of national executive in Odisha is to instil confidence among party cadres for the battles ahead and to attract influential local leaders from rival parties.
Patnaik’s popularity remains undiminished, and BJP knows it can only challenge him by riding on the shoulders of the PM’s iconic image.
The BJP’s campaign in Odisha will also rest on the Centre’s schemes for the welfare of the poor, its attempts to respond to the unfulfilled aspirations of the youth of the state and by appropriating local icons.
It also hopes to build on the wide network of Sangh Parivar outfits that have been working in rural areas for decades, particularly to counter Christian missionary activity.
While Muslims comprise a mere two per cent of the population, there exists a resonance for Hindutva consolidation in the state. Recent violence, which had stemmed from communal tensions, Bhadrak has touched a raw nerve.
Pradhan says Odisha has become a ‘laboratory of the PM’s welfare of the poor agenda’, and details how Odisha has benefited with greater devolution under the 14th Finance Commission, more national highways are being constructed in the state and central allocations for rural housing is at an all-time high.
Beyond welfare politics, the BJP has assiduously worked to appropriate regional icons.
On Sunday, the PM will meet descendents of the warriors who had taken part in the 1817 Paika rebellion, considered the first armed rebellion against the British East India Company.
The venue for the BJP national executive has been named after 19th century Oriya poet Bhima Bhoi. The Dalit poet has a following across Odisha and Jharkhand, and his philosophy, ‘let the world get redeemed at my cost’, is inscribed on the wall of the UN Hall.
Other Odisha icons it has included in its pantheon are social reformer Gopabandhu Das and freedom fighter Veer Surendra Sai.
Whenever they are in Odisha, top BJP leaders, including Modi and Shah, visit the Jagannath temple and the Samaleswari temple in Sambalpur, and also pay their respects to the Shankaracharya of Puri.
But as the recent panchayat polls showed with the BJP winning most of the seats in areas where the Congress had been stronger, the only person standing between Modi and Shah's dream of installing a BJP government in Bhubaneswar is Naveen Patnaik.
IMAGE: BJP president Amit Shah inaugurates party's National Executive Meet in Bhubaneswar on Saturday. Photograph: PTI Photo