It was an election like no other. For one thing, the 97,990 victory margin of the winning candidate, BJD’s Rita Sahu, was the highest in the electoral history of Odisha, eclipsing the previous record of 94,555 set by veteran BJP leader and present Andhra Pradesh Governor Biswabhushan Harichandan in the heydays of the BJD-BJP alliance in 2000.
For another, it was the first election in recent memory where a senior leader of one of the three major contenders, Congress (Suresh Routray), threw in the towel and conceded defeat at the height of campaigning, leaving the cadres thoroughly demoralised. But the one big takeaway from result of the by-election in Bijepur Assembly seat, necessitated by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik vacating this seat after winning from both here and his old constituency of Hinjli, was that the opposition is no match for Naveen Patnaik when it comes to state elections even as Rita surpassed both the number of votes polled (1,10,604) and the margin of victory (57,122) achieved by the BJD supremo six months ago.
For the record, Rita secured 1,35,957 (73%) votes while BJP’s Gadtia got just 37,967 (20.63%), 15,515 less than he got contesting against the Chief Minister in April. The Congress polled a paltry 5,873 (3.19%) and lost its deposit.
The stakes were particularly high for the saffron party because it had based its entire campaign on the fact that Naveen ‘ditched’ the voters of Bijepur after getting elected in the assembly election. But the result proves beyond any doubt that the people of this western Odisha constituency rejected the BJP propaganda and chose to believe in the CM’s assurance while quitting that he would ‘personally’ look after Bijepur instead.
After the stunning result in Bijepur, Naveen’s adversaries have predictably sought to give a different spin to it, claiming ‘Rita is more popular than Naveen and should now become the Chief Minister!’ But Rita, the widow of Subal Sahu, the three-time Congress MLA from the constituency, would be the last person to believe in this preposterous interpretation of the results. She knows, as does any impartial observer, that it was a vote for Naveen rather than for her. In any case, the comparison is odious because Naveen was contesting from two seats and no one was sure if he would keep Bijepur.
The drastic fall in the numbers for the BJP can be attributed mainly to the crisis of credibility that the party is currently suffering from. Voters in Bijepur – as indeed in the whole of Bargarh district to which it belongs – had backed the party solidly in the three-tier panchayat elections in February, 2017 in the hope that it would take on Naveen Patnaik and emerge as the alternative to the BJD in the state. That hope was rudely dashed after the BJP began cozying up to Naveen almost as soon as the general elections were over. The estranged allies have been on the same page on almost every major issue and this has clearly cost the BJP dear.
For the Congress, which won the seat three times in succession even as the BJD swept the rest of the state, the result in Bijepur is nothing short of disastrous. With just 3.19% share of the votes, the party that ruled the state for decades has now truly become a fringe player. The poor show of the party comes in stark contrast to its much improved show in Haryana, emphasizing the point that there is little hope of a revival in the party’s fortunes in the state anytime soon.
While the massive mandate the Bijepur people have given to Rita is certainly a cause for some frenzied celebration in the BJD camp, it also means that the expectations from the state government are that much higher. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had announced a slew of development projects, including a mega lift irrigation project christened ‘Gangadhar Meher Lift Irrigation System’ worth Rs 1246 crores, for Bijepur in the run up to the by-election necessitated by the death of Subal Sahu, the husband of Rita, in 2017. But none of them has been completed so far though there has been some progress. The mandate is a reaffirmation of trust in the Naveen Patnaik government and the hope that the huge victory would create a kind of pressure on it to move at a faster rate than it has done so far.