Naveen Patnaik facing his toughest battle yet (Election Special)

Bhubaneswar, April 16: Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik seems to be facing his toughest political battle as he bids for a fourth straight term in Odisha and struggles to retain his party’s 14 Lok Sabha seats out of the state’s total of 21.

If opinion polls are any indication, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) led by him may retain power with a reduced strength, but the resurgence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could pose a formidable challenge to his political career.

According to the latest opinion polls, the BJP is likely to replace Congress as the main opposition by bagging seven of the state’s 21 Lok Sabha seats, an unexpected gain for a party which had drawn a blank in the state in 2009 elections.

The BJD and BJP were ally for 11 years before they parted ways in 2008. They jointly fought the Lok Sabha polls in 1998, 1999 and 2004 and the assembly elections of 2000 and 2004.

In the Lok Sabha polls of 1998, 1999 and 2004, the BJD won 9, 10, and 12 seats respectively, while the BJP won 7, 9, and 7 seats. In the assembly polls of 2000 and 2004, the BJD bagged 68 and 61 seats, while the BJP won 38 and 32 seats respectively.

The BJD won 103 seats in the 147-member assembly in 2009 elections, leaving behind the Congress and BJP with only 27 and six seats respectively.

The opinion poll conducted by private television channel NDTV gives Patnaik’s BJD 13 Lok Sabha seats, one less than what it won in the last elections. It predicted just one seat for the Congress.

The BJP said it will bag a sizable number of assembly seats. It believes a government in the state cannot be formed without its support.

The ruling party discounted the opinion poll and said it expects to win 18 Lok Sabha seats and over 100 assembly seats. The BJP said it will get more than what was projected, while a Congress leader said his party may get three-four Lok Sabha seats and retain its assembly seats.

“Narendra Modi factor is not working in Odisha. Some may tilt towards Modi, but this may not be enough to fetch BJP a seat. We will get 18 seats, four more than what we got in the last elections,” BJD vice president and Minister Surya Narayan Patro told IANS.

Suresh Pujari, chief spokesman of state unit of the BJP, said the state recorded 75 percent polling in the first phase April 10 and a massive turnout will be repeated in the second and final phase April 17.

“The wave in favour of (BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra) Modi is stronger than what we had seen in favour of Vajpayee in 1998 and 1999,” he told IANS.

“High voting is an indication that people wanted a change and they are voting for BJP,” he said. Pujari said his party is likely to win more than 10 Lok Sabha seats and a sizeable number of assembly seats too.

The BJD secured the 37 percent vote share, the Congress 33 and the BJP 17 percent in 2009. The BJP claimed its vote share will increase to 33 percent due to Modi wave.

Admitting that Congress will not fare well, a senior party leader and former Lok Sabha member said the infighting and poor candidate selection hit the prospect of the Congress.

“We have a sizable vote bank in every seat and whatever we get will be mainly due to the divisions of non-Congress votes. I don’t see any wave in favour of the Congress,” he said.

Unlike the past, the image of Patnaik has been hit with his government embroiled in several controversies, including mining scam, mid-day meal scam, chit fund scam or the law and order situation. The traditional anti-incumbency factor is also likely to be reflected in the elections, his critics say.

Besides,what may go against is his inability to learn or speak odia fluently, the state’s mother-tongue, even after 17 years in politics.

Patnaik, 67, also does not have the support of Pyarimohan Mohapatra, a bureaucrat-turned-politician who worked behind the scenes in the past elections to ensure his success.

He has also played a gamble by denying tickets to about a third of party legislators and half a dozen members of the outgoing Lok Sabha.

While some of those who faced the axe descended as rebel candidates, many others are playing the role of trouble-makers staying behind the scene.

The multi-corner contests in almost all the assembly and Lok Sabha constituencies are also likely to affect the prospect of the ruling party.

(Jatindra Dash can be contacted at jatindra.d@ians.in)

IANS