ULB Polls: How to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

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    by SANDEEP SAHU

    Only in April this year, the Congress in Odisha was riding the crest of a wave. Long used to suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of the BJD – in alliance with the BJP for the first nine years and on its own after that – the party had just served a telling blow to the ruling party by winning the elections for three newly created notified area councils (NACs). The geographical spread of the victory suggested an emergence of a state-wide pattern.

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    The handsome win in Nuapada, Atabira and Hindol was widely seen (and not just by the Congress) as an indication of the shape of things to come. Coming as it did on top of six months of a relentless exercise at chipping away at the citadel of the ruling party which began with the September 6, 2012 rally in Bhubaneswar, the biggest and the most successful since the Congress lost power in 2000, the victory made it impossible for the BJD spin doctors to dismiss it as a one off affair.

    Suddenly, there was a spring in the feet of the average Congressman. Victory in the 2014 Assembly elections did not look a remote possibility anymore. Startled at the defeat, a jittery BJD was possessed by self doubt and went on an announcement spree launching one populist measure after another. Expelled BJD leader Pyari Mohan Mohapatra started chanting ‘I told you so’ and ruling party workers started doubting whether BJD supremo had it in him to win an election without the redoubtable former helmsman at the steering wheel.

    But as the results of the elections to 66 urban local bodies (ULBs) began to trickle in on Friday, the Congress was back to square one even as a triumphant BJD laughed all the way to the vote bank. The hope generated by the April victory now lies in tatters. The prospect for the main opposition party in the elections due in the next few months has never looked bleaker.

    The defeat of the Congress was particularly galling because the party has failed miserably to annex even a part of the considerable ground that the BJP has ceded in the state since the last elections. With the rapid decline of the saffron party after its split with the BJD in 2009, it was only natural to expect that the Congress would usurp the space vacated by the BJP. Instead, as the results of the ULB polls have shown, it is the ruling party that appears to have taken over the political space once held by its alliance partner.

    In a move that defied all logic and has still not been adequately explained, the Congress high command replaced PCC President Niranjan Patnaik, under whose leadership the revival of the moribund party organisation had begun, with Jayadev Jena. The latter was presented as the knight in shining armour, who would take the resurgence to its logical conclusion culminating in victory for the party in 2014.

    Jena too saw himself as the Naveen Patnaik of the Congress party, who would decimate the rival single-handedly. That perhaps was the reason he did not invite any senior central leader to campaign for the party in the state after having promised to rope in the likes of Jairam Ramesh and Sachin Pilot. Instead of getting all factions on board, he created new factions in the party. Instead of fighting the BJD, he battled his real and imaginary foes within his own party. Even as Naveen Patnaik personally supervised everything from finalising candidates to assigning leaders to take charge of particular areas and then embarked on whirlwind tour of the state, the Congress appeared to have neither a strategy in place nor the generals to run the campaign.

    The results of this lackadaisical approach are there for everybody to see. Forget ensuring victory for the Congress throughout the state, Jena could not ensure a win even in own backyard of Anandpur. If he now gloats over the fact that the party under him has improved its tally from nine to 10, it would be an exercise in delusion.

    On his part, the AICC general secretary in charge of the state BK Hariprasad, who replaced the combative and hands-on Jagdish Tytler in the change of guards in May, was invisible throughout the campaign only to surface on the very last day of electioneering. Instead of planning strategy and personally supervising election related operations, the Karnataka leader stayed put in New Delhi and left things entirely to Jena. When he did finally appear on the dais in Berhampur in the company of senior state leaders, it sent out a message not of unity, but of a badly divided house.

    The more one thinks of it, the more it appears that the Congress high command has already conceded defeat in the state though there are still six months to go before the elections. The party, it seems, has calculated that the BJD would retain the 14 Lok Sabha seats that it has in the current parliament and may be even improve on it. It would thus be in the interest of the party to keep Naveen in good humour and seek his support, covert or otherwise, after the 2014 election which is expected to throw up a fractured mandate. In hindsight, even Jayadev Jena’s anointment as PCC chief can be attributed to this line of thinking.

    Naveen Patnaik clearly has a lot to thank the Congress party for.

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