Political Times

Five seats where poll battle could be a roller coaster

1) Bhubaneswar

Contenders: Aparajita Sarangi (BJP), Arup Patnaik (BJD) and Janardan Pati (CPM)

Bhubaneswar, the number one Smart City in the country, is also a high-profile Lok Sabha constituency in Odisha. The capital has been the ruling BJD’s pocket borough for the past four elections. BJD’s maverick leader, the ochre-robe clad Prasanna Patsani aka ‘chicken baba’ has been winning from the seat without ado. But this election has thrown up an enormous challenge for the ruling party. The Opposition fielding formidable candidates has upset the ruling party’s calculus. The BJP has chosen former bureaucrat Aparajita Sarangi to slug it out against the BJD in Bhubaneswar. Sarangi is not another run-of-the-mill IAS officer. This much adored Odia bohu (she’s married to Arabinda Padhee, also an Odisha-cadre IAS officer currently serving the Government of India). In her stint as the Commissioner of Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) and secretary with the department of school & mass education, Sarangi unleashed a host of bold reforms. Her administrative acumen coupled with a people-centric approach has profoundly endeared her to the denizens of the city. Ever since she joined the BJP cadre, Sarangi has been assiduously running her campaigns in and around Bhubaneswar, connecting with the rank and file. Aparajita’s focus is invariably on constructive campaigning, she has desisted from raining abuse on her opponents. Her strength is her credibility and the Modi government’s performance over the last five years.

Aparajita is pitted against Arup Patnaik, the ex Mumbai super cop. Patnaik, in an unblemished, dazzling career with the Indian Police Service (IPS), has earned the plaudits from all. Perhaps, the BJD boss Naveen Patnaik feels only an officer of Arup’s calibre and credentials can punch holes in Aparajita’s confidence. Arup, however, seems to be a rank outsider for Bhubaneswar and his service record in Maharashtra is unlikely to resonate with the masses. Arup, though, has the natural advantage of contesting from a BJD ticket, riding on Naveen’s formidable charisma. Politcal pundits have already pitched it as a battle between Aparajita and Arup, IAS versus IPS- the poll results could swing either way, running the see-saw of people’s choices. The third candidate for the constituency- the Communist strongman Janardan Pati has been shunned from the limelight. But who knows he may actually end up splitting a sizeable share of votes if not emerging the dark horse winner.

2) Kendrapara

Contenders: Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda (BJP) and Anubhav Mohanty (BJD)

BJD’s former enfant terrible Baijayant Panda known as Jay Panda in the Delhi political durbar, has joined the BJP after nine months in wilderness. Panda is an extremely popular leader in Kendrapara with a proven track record of exemplary service. His name arouses respect among the people. Locals in Kendrapara still root for him though he was defenestrated by the BJD. People feel every developmental activity begins with and rolls ahead with Panda. Riding on his charisma and performance, Panda has emerged as a tough challenger for Naveen’s BJD in the prestigious Kendrapara seat. Don’t forget, Kendrapara as a constituency, has emotive ramifications- it was the seat of the legendary Biju Patnaik, one of modern Odisha’s key architects and father of Naveen Patnaik. More often than not, Naveen has played the Biju card to the hilt to permeate into the voters’ minds. Now when, senior leaders have exited the BJD, citing the party’s digression from Biju babu’s ideals as the key reason, Naveen finds himself in a tight spot. He’ll need to set off a fresh narrative, make people realise his BJD connotes the real Biju’s persona. The regional satrap has handpicked Ollywood superstar Anubhav Mohanty to take Jay Panda head on from Kendrapara. How the cine heartthrob will make the transition from Rajya Sabha to Lok Sabha remains to be watched. But people believe Kendrapara this time has an intriguing contest on the cards unlike the cakewalks BJD had in the previous two Lok Sabha polls. Both frenetic campaigners and saboteurs will have a role to play.

3) Puri

Contenders: Pinakhi Mishra (BJD), Sambit Patra (BJP) and Satya Prakash Nayak (Congress)

The pilgrimage town has a surprise entry this time- BJP’s vocal and suave spokesman Sambit Patra. Till Patra was fielded from Puri, the gossip mills had enough grist on the possibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi contesting from the seat. Whether the Prime Minister withdrew his candidature at the eleventh hour and made Patra the scapegoat is still gossiped. Having said this, Puri has a semblance of fight for the incumbent BJD. Pinakhi Mishra, the upwardly mobile MP, has been negotiating easy victories from the seat. On this occasion, Mishra realises the equations have altered. Patra is an outsider and has deracinated from his Odisha roots long back. To rediscover his roots and rhythm is going to be Herculean. Also, he has minimal time to make amends or headway. His only forte is his sublime oratory. With his blazing rhetoric, Patra can set the record straight and dilate on Modi government’s performance. If he can invade the mindscape of the people, building on Modi’s image and his government’s track record, he could mortify Mishra. Congress, too, has sprinkled a new condiment in the electoral broth by fielding Satya Prakash Nayak, the journalist turned party spokesperson. Nayak is a political greenhorn, nonetheless acutely aware of the failings of the Naveen government- a streak which he has been consistently flagging in his formal or informal confabulations with the press in Odisha. For a success laden campaign trail, Nayak, though, would need the blessings of his party stalwarts. Like Patra, he, too, has limited time in his favour.

4) Kandhamal

Contenders: Achyuta Samanta (BJD) and Kharbela Swain (BJP)

Could this be the clash of the titans? Both heavyweights. Both legends in their domains. None of the two, though, qualifies as a quintessential tribal leader despite their soaring fame. Achyuta wrests the moral advantage with the tribals. His party boss knows this amply. When BJD’s Balabhdra Majhi defected to the BJP recently, Naveen had no immediate candidate in mind for the tribal infested Kandhamal. Zeroing in on Achyuta, currently a Rajya Sabha MP, was easy and brimmed with logic given the latter’s enormous tribal traction. Achyuta’s Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS) which houses over 25,000 tribal kids, has endeared him hugely to the tribal community. Even inducting the KISS founder to the BJD cadre reeked of a tribal card to be played deftly in the near future. Achyuta enters the poll fray with advantage of the tribal backing and the nomination of the redoubtable BJD. But, he knows the contest is no walkover when you are vying for the honour with the seasoned Kharbela Swain on the opposite camp. Swain, a three time BJP MP from Balasore since 1998, joined in the party’s ranks last week. In the interregnum, Swain had deserted the saffron bloc to float his own outfit- Utkal Odisha. He has been one of the most trenchant critics of the Naveen government. But the tall leader has been cooling his heels, releasing jibes at the BJD without making an electoral success of it. This opportunity is God sent for Swain though he is contesting from an unknown terrain.

5) Sambalpur

Contenders: NK Pradhan (BJD) and Nitesh Gangadeb (BJP)

Western Odisha’s political hotbed Sambalpur is bracing up for a keen electoral contest. Like Bhubaneswar, the BJD has opted for a former bureaucrat to shore up its electoral fortunes. Instead of re-nominating the sitting MP Nagendra Pradhan, the party batted for Nalini Kanta Pradhan, the former works secretary who was even rewarded with an extension by the Naveen government in lieu of his committed service post his superannuation. Pradhan is known to be a no-nonsense mandarin, with an enviable record of reforms in trunk infrastructure. The most notable of his achievements is the erection of the jinxed Gurupriya bridge in the Maoist heartland. As a reformist, Pradhan befittingly suits the Naveen narrative of development. His flip side is his image tainted by spate of corruption cases in his erstwhile department and the collapsing of key bridges at the under construction stage in Bhubaneswar which sparked considerable public outrage.

To humble the neophyte Pradhan, BJP has selected Nitesh Gangadeb. Though an important leader, Gangadeb doesn’t owe his roots to Sambalpur, he has royal descent of the Deogarh nobles. There is a consensual view among many sane observers that the BJP has bungled it up in selecting candidates for the Sambalpur region- the Parliamentary constituency as well as assembly segments in its territorial jurisdiction. Still, Sambalpur has been largely the BJP’s fortress if you’re downplaying the upset victory of BJD’s first time Rasheswari Panigrahi in the last assembly polls. Riding on the loyalist voters’ backing, BJP could still usurp the Sambalpur constituency from BJD.

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