After conceding defeat in the one-off election for the much hyped Patkura Assembly constituency, BJP’s enfant terrible Bijoy Mohapatra said he was ‘surprised’ by the verdict. But for those who have observed Odisha politics over the years and have seen the ground realities in this politically significant constituency, once represented by the late Biju Patnaik, there was nothing surprising about the outcome.
Mohapatra, who had boasted that he would win hands down before the polls, was unable to put a finger on what exactly led to his defeat in what could well be his last election, saying he would speak about it only after conducting a thorough post-mortem of the result. But some factors are all too obvious. Over 100 BJD MLAs, including most ministers in the Naveen Patnaik government, had camped in Patkura, two in-charge of each of the 51 panchayats in the constituency, besides almost all party leaders, ever since the revised dates for the polls were announced, leaving a handful of party legislators to hold fort in the Assembly during its ongoing monsoon session. It was amusing to see the ruling party, which has 112 BJD MLAs in the 147-strong Assembly, was frequently outnumbered by opposition members in the House over the last week or so.
Everyone in the BJD, from ministers to the ordinary worker on the ground, knew very well that any slip-up in Patkura would earn them the wrath of the party supremo. Naveen Patnaik has left no one in doubt that he does not want his friend-turned-bitter foe to enter the Assembly - not just in this election, but in every election since 2000 when he tricked Mohapatra out of the contest by cancelling his ticket at the very last minute, leaving him with no time to file his nomination even as an independent. In fighting for BJD candidate Sabitri Agrawala, therefore, leaders of the ruling party were essentially fighting to stay in the good books of the supremo.
Those who visited Patkura during the campaign say official machinery was used to the fullest extent to pull off a victory for the ruling party candidate. There have also been allegations of money being paid to gain votes – some say it was as high as 5000 rupees for every vote.
Mohapatra, in contrast, neither had the money to match BJD nor the unstinted support of everyone in the BJP. If he still managed to poll over 78, 000 votes, it proves that his standing in Odisha politics comes not because of his association with the BJP. After all, it was the BJP which wooed him back into the party on the eve of the general elections a few months after he, along with his good friend and former Union minister Dilip Ray, left the party after being sidelined in the party for years.
The outcome in Patkura proved for the umpteenth time that Naveen has perfected the art of winning elections and has no match in Odisha politics. The fact that he has been in power since 2000 has certainly helped. But that alone cannot explain his unprecedented five consecutive wins. But there is little doubt that the margin of victory – 17,920 – would have disappointed him. A margin of 30, 000 or more – the figure being bandied about by BJD leaders before the elections – would certainly have been more to his liking because he had staked everything on it, including campaigning extensively for Sabitri Agrawala.
The question being debated in political circles after the result is what next for Mohapatra? Some observers have already written his political obituary, pointing to the fact that he would be 73 by the time the next Assembly elections are due. But it would be premature to write off a politician who has managed to stay politically relevant without being an MLA for 19 years and despite being unwanted by many in his own party. A win would certainly have changed his off-again, on-again relationship with the BJP and forced party leaders to give him his rightful place. But at this stage, it would be foolish – and premature – to write his epitaph.