Suddenly, political circles in Odisha are abuzz with talk of ‘anti-incumbency’ — that long-forgotten term in the state — which is being seen as the reason for the defeat of the 15-year-old Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, respectively.
“If anti-incumbency unseated the BJP governments in these two states,” goes the argument, “it should hit the BJD government even harder.” After all, the Naveen Patnaik government is now in its 18th year and is due to face simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the next few months.
For all one knows, however, it could be a case of clutching at straws by a desperate opposition at its wits’ end over how to stop the Naveen Patnaik juggernaut that has seen him win four consecutive elections, the last of them at the height of the Narendra Modi wave which swept much of the country in 2014.
Interestingly, Patnaik himself has attributed the defeat of the incumbent governments in these ‘predominantly agrarian states’ to the Modi government’s failure to implement the Swaminathan Commission recommendations and waive off farm loans.
If his reading of the election results is correct, it should worry him even more. For one thing, Odisha is even more of an ‘agrarian state’ than MP and Chhattisgarh with well over 60% of its population still engaged in farm activity. For another, his government has done precious little for farmers when compared to the two outgoing governments.
While MP recorded double-digit growth in the agriculture sector, the highest in the country, for well over a decade, Odisha has been a laggard, managing no more than an average of 2.8% growth between 2011 and 2017.
If the Chhattisgarh government provided a bonus of Rs 300 per quintal of paddy, the Rs 100 per quintal ‘input subsidy’ announced by the Odisha in the wake of a spate of farmers suicides in 2015-16 is yet to reach the farmers.
Farmers in Odisha are having to resort to distress sale of paddy while the government is content to blame the Centre for refusing to accept the unanimous resolution passed in the state Assembly for raising the MSP of paddy to Rs 2,950. The goal of providing at least 35% irrigation in each of the state’s 314 blocks, something that has found prominent place in every manifesto of the BJD since 2000 when it to power, has remained a pipedream with the target achieved in just 114 blocks so far.
A plan to give share croppers their rights has lost its way in the labyrinthine corridors of power. Hundreds of farmers have committed suicide in the state (though the government has attributed them to every reason under the sun except farm distress). In short, the farm sector is in a complete mess in the state.
If, as the CM says, the voters of MP and Chhattisgarh, which have a much better record in the farm sector, punished their state governments for the failures of the Centre, one wonders who they will punish in Odisha, a state that compares poorly with the two heartland states.
One way the Chief Minister’s reading of the election results can be interpreted is that he is aware of the resentment brewing among farmers and has some big announcement on the farm sector up his sleeve that has the potential to do in 2019 what the Rs 2 per kg rice (now Re 1 a kg) scheme did for him in the 2009 elections.
No one knows it better than Patnaik that for all the brave talk in public, the situation on the ground is not as favourable for him as it was in 2014. While his personal popularity remains largely intact, the murmurs of discontent among various sections of the population are growing louder by the day. Even as the government goes on announcing one welfare scheme after another, the well-entrenched BJD eco-system has ensured that the benefits of the schemes went to the party faithful rather than the deserving beneficiaries.
The fact that lakhs of people are still without a ration card even after the Naveen Patnaik government announced its own food security scheme to add 34 lakh more families to the 61 lakh already covered by the Centre’s National Food Security Act (NFSA) gives an idea about the massive irregularities in drawing up the list of beneficiaries for the flagship scheme.
Women, who were the single biggest factor behind Patnaik’s thumping win in 2014 (the BJD won 20 out of the 21 Lok Sabha and 117 of the 147 Assembly seats), are now a thoroughly disillusioned lot, primarily on account of the government’s determination to promote liquor in the state. Spontaneous anti-liquor movements have sprung up in almost all corners of the state and opposed the spread of liquor tooth and nail.
But the government has shown no signs of backing off, except in a case last month where the CM was forced to announce the abrogation of a beer bottling plant in Dhenkanal after women clutched at the trunks of hundreds of trees they had tended with great love and care, which were felled in a sly, pre-dawn operation by the district administration to make way for the plant, and refused to budge for two days.
Acutely aware that many of his MLAs have lost the trust of the voters, the BJD supremo has reportedly drawn up a list of 40-50 constituencies where he proposes to field fresh faces to beat the anti-incumbency blues.
Whether that would be enough to undo the damage in time for him to win an unprecedented fifth successive election is something that would keep political observers engaged over the next few months.