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Counter-raids & more — how BJD’s fighting to save Odisha’s Padampur seat from an aggressive BJP

Riding high after a bypoll win in October, BJP is going all out to wrest Padampur assembly seat in a by-election necessitated by sitting MLA’s death. The BJD is fighting back.

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New Delhi: Of late, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has rarely ventured into the interiors of the state, banking on the force of his popularity to win votes. But this hiatus ended Friday when he hit the campaign trail for the hotly contested 5 December Padampur assembly bypoll in Bargarh district.

This time, the Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) does not want to take any chances with an increasingly aggressive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), fresh off its victory in the Dhamnagar bypoll in October. Having succeeded in retaining that seat, the BJP is now going all out to wrest Padampur from the BJD.

Pulling off a win here could burnish the BJP’s credentials in Odisha in the lead up to the 2024 assembly and Lok Sabha elections, while also dulling the sheen of the BJD, which is eyeing its sixth consecutive term in the state.

With such high stakes, both parties have been pulling out all the weapons in their arsenals — from welfare schemes, to raids and counter-raids by central and state agencies, to finger-pointing over farmers’ issues and a railway project.

BJD sources said that the party has deployed around 30 MLAs and 10 state ministers in Padampur. Not to be outdone, the BJP has released Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan from his election duties in Gujarat just to keep an eye on the Odisha campaign.

Senior BJP and BJD leaders ThePrint spoke to were equally adamant that victory would be theirs.

While BJD Rajya Sabha MP Prasanna Acharya told ThePrint that the BJP was “daydreaming” if it thought it could win in Padampur, BJP MP from Bargarh Suresh Pujari insisted that the Dhamnagar victory had started a “momentum” for the party in Odisha.

Also read: ‘No softening towards BJD’: Amit Shah sets 2024 Odisha road map, says BJP will form govt ‘soon’

Death and taxes

The Padampur bypoll was necessitated by the death of incumbent BJD MLA Bijay Ranjan Singh Bariha in October. In keeping with its tradition of fielding relatives of departed leaders, the party has given its ticket to his daughter Barsha Singh Bariha.

She has been paying emotional tributes to her father, including in a Friday speech in the presence of CM Patnaik. With her as a candidate, the BJD is eyeing votes from the tribal Binjhal community and some gains from a possible sympathy wave.

But Padampur, a rural constituency with about 2.48 lakh voters, has been known to swing in different directions.

The BJP’s candidate, Pradip Purohit, has had more than one close battle with the late Bariha. In 2019, Purohit lost to Bariha by about 5,000 votes, but in 2014, the BJP leader had won by a margin of 4,500 votes.

A well-known face in the region, Purohit first came into prominence in the 1980s as one of the leaders of the successful movement against Bharat Aluminium Company Ltd (BALCO), which had planned to mine for bauxite in the ecologically sensitive Gandhamardan hills.

He told ThePrint he is confident since he has the support of many farmers and tribals.

BJP candidate for Padampur and former MLA Pradip Purohit on the campaign trail | Credit: Twitter/@PradipPurohit_

The tenor of this year’s battle though has been fiercer than anything that the constituency has seen before.

On Monday, the BJP-led Union government’s income tax department conducted raids at the residences of three local business owners who were believed to have close dealings with Bijay Ranjan Singh Bariha. Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were reportedly especially brought in from Chhattisgarh for the task.

Soon thereafter, the state government’s GST department raided local businesses, including a pharmacy and petrol pump, owned by purported supporters of the BJP — a move that was seen as retaliation for the IT raids.

Days later, delegations from both parties approached the state’s chief electoral officer (CEO) with allegations of lawless conduct.

On Thursday, a BJD delegation submitted ‘evidence’ in a pen drive of Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan allegedly exhorting a woman TV journalist to “hit” state minister Ranendra Pratap ‘Raja’ Swain. The delegation has asked for immediate action to be taken against Pradhan.

The BJP, too, has petitioned the CEO, alleging that a woman worker was “injured in an attack by BJD goons on the instruction of an MLA”.

Sops, farmers, rail line controversy

The campaign for Padampur has been defined by the BJP and BJD lashing out at each other for the backwardness of the drought-prone region, which falls in Bargarh district.

But before the bypoll date was announced, CM Patnaik announced projects worth Rs 488 crore for the constituency and went on a spree of virtual foundation-laying ceremonies.

Since then, Patnaik has announced a Rs 200-crore package for the welfare of drought-hit farmers, petitioned the central government for the removal of GST on tendu leaves, which are used for making bidis, and sanctioned land and funds for projects for the Kulta and Meher communities. All of these measures are being seen to have been taken with the constituents of Padampur in mind.

Out of the 2.48 lakh or so voters here, over 44 per cent reportedly belong to Scheduled Tribes and about 29 per cent to the Scheduled Castes. About 40,000 voters reportedly belong to the Binjhal community (to which candidate Barsha Singh Bariha belongs), while the Kultas and Mehers have 30,000 and 20,000 votes respectively.

Meanwhile, BJP minister Pradhan has also taken up farmers’ issues with zeal. Last month, he sought an inquiry into the state’s implementation of the Centre’s Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), a crop insurance scheme, and even brought a delegation of farmers to Delhi to meet Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar.

Union minister and BJP leader Dharmendra Pradhan in Odisha | Credit: Twitter/@dpradhanbjp

Padampur has seen protests from farmers who have alleged that their insurance claims under the PMFBY have not been settled for last year’s drought-related crop losses.

Another issue that has taken centrestage during the campaign is the proposed Bargarh-Nuapada rail line via Padampur. The BJP and BJD have squabbled over the date of the project’s sanctioning and have blamed each other for its lack of progress.

The BJD has alleged that even after the Odisha government decided to provide Rs 300 crore and land for the project, the railways have not started work and had instead asked for the state to do a further survey.

Subsequently, Union Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw arrived in Padampur to campaign on 27 November, where he claimed that lags from the state government in providing land had led to the project’s delay.

He said that the railway ministry had given its in-principle approval to the Odisha Rail Infrastructure Development Ltd (ORIDL), which comes under the state government, back in in December 2021, but that the agency had not fulfilled its brief for the survey and acquisition of land.

Vaishnaw challenged the Odisha government to provide land and said “we will start work the day after”.

Speaking to ThePrint, Bargarh MP and BJP leader Suresh Pujari said that the railway line was the “biggest issue” in the Padampur by-election.

“All that the state government has done is to accuse the Centre, but they have not even started a survey. How will the railway start work without land? The BJD is just doing propaganda, but they aren’t mentioning how much money they got in the rail budget,” Pujari said.

BJD Prasanna Acharya, on the other hand, said that the BJP was employing “tactics to hide their incompetence” in executing the rail line by blaming the state government.

“We can’t afford to lose Padampur, so the CM himself is campaigning, but we are comfortably placed,” Acharya added.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: Poor focus & narrative, CM Patnaik’s touch — why BJP got swept by BJD in Odisha rural polls


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