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After Dharamnagar setback, Naveen Patnaik goes on first bypoll campaign in 3 yrs

Bhubaneswar: In his first in-person bypoll campaign in three years, chief minister Naveen Patnaik on Friday flew to western Odisha’s Bargarh district on Friday to address two public rallies in support of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate in the Padampur assembly election Barsha Singh Bariha.

Naveen Patnaik’s decision to travel to the constituency comes against the backdrop of the BJD’s defeat in the Dhamnagar bypoll where the BJP retained the seat.

The last time Patnaik campaigned in person for a byelection was in Bijepur in October 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic. In bypolls to five assembly segments since then, Patnaik opted for a virtual campaign.

In his speeches at the two election meetings on Friday, Patnaik launched a scathing attack on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has pushed the Congress down to the number three spot on this seat over the past decade.

The Padampur bypoll was necessitated due to the death of former minister and three-time MLA Bijaya Singh Bariha.

His daughter, Barsha Singh Bariha, the 29-year-old BJD candidate, stood next to Patnaik with folded hands as the chief minister mounted attacks on the BJP at rallies in the constituency’s Jharbandh and Paikmal areas.

Her father, a veteran tribal leader, had won, and lost elections by a margin of just a few thousand votes. The BJD and Patnaik, who is also the party boss, don’t want to take a chance this time. A BJP win on this seat would be a huge morale booster for the opposition party ahead of the 2024 state and Lok Sabha elections.

Patnaik last week received a delegation of members of the Kulta community who are estimated to make up about 27% of the constituency’s 2.5 lakh voters in Bhuvneshwar and promised them a plot of land and 3 crore for a dharamshala in Puri town where Jagannath devotees from the community can stay

To a representation from the Bhulia, also an OBC community, Patnaik promised to get a building constructed in memory of renowned Odia poet Gangadhar Meher and hold a grand celebration of his death centenary in 2024

The chief minister also inducted Mahendra Badei, a former Odisha Administrative Service officer and member of the Kulta Samaj into the BJD and appointed him the party spokesperson. Badehi also addressed the gathering in Patnaik’s presence.

The ruling BJD has also reached out to its candidate’s Binjhal tribe who constitute a big chunk of the voters apart from the Gond tribals, the second largest group among the constituency’s tribal communities.

The BJD hopes the sympathy factor will also work in its favour. Her rival from the BJP, Pradip Purohit, has won the seat just once, in 2014, but has lost the seat by a narrow margin. In 2019, the margin was less than 6,000 votes. And Purohit has been at work since then, reaching out to farmers and influential communities over the last few years.

The BJP has also inducted Sanjay Bhoi, former Congress MP from Bargarh and son of former union minister Dr Krupasindhu Bhoi, who still remains one of the tallest leaders of the community. To demonstrate solidarity with the farmers, Purohit even deferred his nomination by a day choosing to sit with the agitating peasants. The party has also attempted to woo the Gond tribals by promising that PM Modi may attend their national convention later this month.

Intense campaign

Hopeful that a win in Padampur could help alter the political dynamics of the state, the BJP has deployed several union ministers including union railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw and union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar to campaign for the party candidate on the emotive issues of crop insurance and railway linkage to the region. Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who successfully helmed the party campaign in Dhamnagar last month has been intensively campaigning in the area. BJP national vice-president Baijayant Panda and party spokesperson Sambit Patra have also campaigned.

It was against this backdrop that income tax officials conducted raids on the premises of three BJD leaders of Padampur. There has been no follow-up to the raids but the BJD-led Odisha government hit back hours later with, what was described in political circles, as tit-for-tat raids at local BJP leaders by the state’s Goods and Services Tax officers.

Both the parties have petitioned the Election Commission several times over the last 10 days accusing each other of electoral malpractices.

In 2019, the BJP won only 23 seats in the 147-member state assembly, but unseated the Congress to be the main opposition party. The party hopes that more Congress voters in Padampur will shift to the BJP, one more step closer to its objective of decimating the Congress in western and southern Odisha in 2024 polls. It will also demonstrate that Naveen Patnaik’s physical presence may not be enough for BJD to sail through.

For the BJD, a clear win in Padampur would set to rest the talks of dips in BJD’s and Patnaik’s popularity.

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