Aditya Sinha: Can Jagannath renew BJP juggernaut?
BJP's numbers in the north can only go down, but their hope is that by contesting from Puri, they might just claim new ground in Odisha
Talk in Delhi is that in next year's parliamentary election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi may contest Puri, Odisha. In 2014, he contested two seats: Varanasi, UP, and Vadodra, Gujarat; he would likely contest a second seat in 2019 as well. Like Varanasi, Puri is a centre of Hinduism: it is home to the Shree Jagannath temple, one of the char dham - the four Vaishnavite pilgrimage sites in Hinduism. In 2014, Modi was responding to the call of Maa Ganga; he will no doubt find an equally compelling spiritual call that leads him to Puri.
Actually, the choice will be a political one. The prize that the BJP wants is Odisha, which will hold an Assembly poll along with its 21 parliamentary seats next summer. Varanasi has been a BJP stronghold since the early 1990s - it lost only in 2004 - but the same is not true of Puri, which has been held by the Biju Janata Dal for the last 20 years. Naveen Patnaik, the BJD supremo, has been chief minister for 18 years, and he will likely be looking for a fifth win as CM in 2019 - unless someone asks him to be prime minister.
The BJP's goal, obviously, is to try to breach the BJD stronghold and claim Odisha as another state in its trophy bag. The BJP tried to exploit the BJD's hardwired anti-Congressism to ride it piggy-back to power, and they were coalition partners during the Vajpayee era. But the Kandhamal riots ten years ago opened Naveen Patnaik's eyes to the BJP's long-term goals of polarising the electorate, marginalising his party, and then coming to power on its own. So, in 2009, the two parties went their separate ways. In 2014, despite the Modi electoral tsunami that swept the country, Odisha not only re-elected the BJD, but did so resoundingly, giving them 20 of the 21 Parliament seats and 117 of the 147 Assembly seats.
Winning Odisha for Modi is not just a matter of vanquishing another political entity. It is necessary because the 2014 win was concentrated in the Hindi heartland states, and the victory reached a saturation point. From tallies in states like Gujarat or Rajasthan or UP, the numbers cannot further increase; they can only go down.
The Gujarat Assembly poll showed the Congress breathing down the BJP's neck in Modi's home state; the Assembly election in Rajasthan (and in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh) in December is already marked by anti-incumbency, so one can expect a drop in the number of parliamentary seats; and the recent string of by-election losses in UP point to a plunge in parliamentary seats from 71 (plus two of the ally Apna Dal).
If Modi's parliamentary number is coming down in some states, he has to make up for it in others. Party chief Amit Shah seems optimistic that the 25 states of the Northeast will cover one chunk of the loss, and he has reason to be so - the Northeast has been receptive to the BJP message over the past two and a half years, producing state after state, giving the party a majority in Assam (and wiping out its former coalition partner, the Asom Gana Parishad) and vanquishing the Left Front from its quarter-century of rule in Tripura. Amit Shah would be thinking that along with the Northeast - and possibly a sprinkling of seats from the South - if his party can sweep Odisha then Modi would be in a competitive position to return as PM in 2019. (Politicians like Jay Panda, who switched from the BJD to the BJP, have obviously made a similar calculation.)
Hence, the talk of Modi contesting from Jagannath Puri, not too far from state capital Bhubaneshwar, but for practical purposes, the epicentre of Odisha. The 2014 contest from Varanasi sent powerful ripples throughout UP (and undoubtedly was the main motivating factor in the overwhelming number of seats that the BJP won); it was key to Modi's becoming PM. BJP strategists expect that Modi's presence in Puri will send similar waves throughout Odisha and bring them the windfall they seek. One should not be surprised if, coincidentally, violent polarisation occurs in the state in the months ahead, mirroring the Kandhamal riots of a decade ago.
One might argue that sweeping Odisha and the Northeast may not fully make up for reductions in numbers in the north that the BJP foresees. Even Modi and Shah are perhaps not expecting to win 283 seats in 2019, and expect a hung Parliament. But in order to allow President Kovind to invite them without controversy to return and form a coalition government, they need to win 180-200 seats; thus, Odisha becomes an important piece in their strategy. No wonder Jagannath Puri is on the BJP's mind these days.
Aditya's latest book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, co-written with AS Dulat and Asad Durrani, is now available. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to email@example.com
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