The BJP’s remarkable performance in the just-concluded civic polls in Odisha should serve as a wake up call for the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the Congress. The BJP tally in the zila parishad elections has risen from 36 in 2012 to 297 whereas the BJD’s presence fell from 651 seats in 2012 to 473 this time. The Congress, the main opposition in the state since it lost office in 2000, has been relegated to third place. With just 60 seats in a total of 846 in the state, the party now stares at the prospect of being reduced to political irrelevance.
The import of the BJP’s ascendance in Odisha, like in Bihar, Maharashtra and elsewhere in recent years, is that a political party will need an organisation at the grass roots and cadres to grow. The BJD, though an off shoot of the socialist movement in the state, had over the years become an extension of the personality of its leader, Naveen Patnaik. Naveen Patnaik inherited the political legacy of his father, Biju Patnaik, but the BJD’s emergence as a regional powerhouse — it has won three consecutive assembly elections since 2000 — owed to the administrative failures of the previous Congress governments. After 17 years in government, anti-incumbency is catching up with the BJD. The superior managerial muscle and resources of the BJP, which has allowed the party to plan and campaign in a systematic way, has also tripped the BJD. The limitations of a politics wholly centred on the personality of its leader are now getting exposed than ever before.
Many regional parties that emerged from powerful social movements have lost their way in a similar fashion by allowing leadership cults to flourish at the expense of cadres and grass roots leaders. The BJP is an example in reverse: In states where it lacked a presence, the party built the organisation on the ground after tying up with the regional titan as a junior partner. Fraternal bodies like the RSS, of course, prepared the ideological ground for it to grow. Events including the murder of Graham Staines, a Christian missionary, and the Kandhamal riots cost the BJP its alliance with the BJD, but the party seems to have shored up its base since. The vacuum left by the Congress has now allowed the BJP to emerge as the main opposition to the BJD. The BJD may need more than Patnaik’s charisma to arrest the BJP’s growth and retain power when Odisha elects a new assembly in 2019.