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Three assembly seats – Kolaras and Mungaoli in Madhya Pradesh and Bijepur in Odisha – had gone to polls on 10 February. However, what should have been a usual by-poll transformed into a high-pitched battle in which BJD in Odisha and Congress in MP left no stone unturned to counter BJP’s aggressive campaign.
Bijepur saw top leaders of the BJP aggressively campaigning for the party’s candidate in an attempt to make inroads into the state where assembly polls are scheduled simultaneously with the 2019 general elections. Similarly, BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had turned the by-polls in Madhya Pradesh into a prestige battle to prove his mettle to lead the party for the fourth straight term. Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh are scheduled later this year and for Chouhan it was a apt opportunity to show his strength to party’s central leadership.
Kolaras and Mungaoli
Congress retained the Mungaoli seat by a narrow margin. Its candidate, Brijendra Singh Yadav, defeated his BJP rival, Baisaab Yadav, by 2124 votes in a tightly-fought election. The party’s candidate, Mahendra Singh Yadav, won the Kolaras seat against BJP’s Devendra Jain by over 8,000 votes.
Both the assembly seats fall in Congress leader’s Jyotiraditya Scindia turf, Guna, which he represents in Lok Sabha. The seats were vacated by untimely death of its Congress representatives. BJP had put in all its efforts to unsettle Scindia, who not only commands great support in the region but is also being seen as one of the frontrunners for Congress’ chief ministerial candidate along with the old hat Kamal Nath, who belongs to Chhindwara in MP.
Congress, which has been plagued by multiple factions in the state buried its internal differences and canvassed as an united front. Both Scindia and Nath were seen together in a road show in the run-up to the poll even as regional leaders invested their energies in getting all the factions together.
To match this unity, BJP’s Chouhan too camped in the two seats and had openly challenged Scindia. He blamed Scindia for region’s apparent backwardness and announced Rs 1000 monthly assistance scheme for Saharia tribe members to tackle malnourishment, which has remained a great concern in the community since many years. The tribe’s population is substantial in Kolaras and Mungaoli.
The BJP went a step ahead and fielded union sports and youth welfare minister, Yashodhara Raje Scindia, and cabinet minister in Chouhan’s cabinet, Maya Singh, from the Scindia royal family, as their star campaigners to challenge Jyotiraditya star power. However, none of these tactics worked eventually as Congress retained both the seats even as the victories cemented Jyotiraditya’s supremacy in the region.
After BJP’s defeat in Chitrakoot by-poll last year by more than 14000 votes, the losses in Kolaras and Mungaoli clearly reflect a brooding anti-incumbency sentiment against the Chouhan government. On the other hand, the faction-ridden Congress should receive the much-needed buoyancy after posting three successive victories in state by-polls.
That BJD won with a margin of 41,933 votes over the BJP – the Congress finished a distant third – is a clear signal that the state’s ruling party still holds its own in the face of BJP’s aggressive campaign. The Hindu nationalist party’s claim that it will win 120 of the 147 seats in next year’s assembly elections has been drawing much attention in the media.
Bijepur, in the quiet Bargarh district of Odisha, thus had shot to limelight because of the political attention it received in the last few days. In the run-up to the poll, it saw union ministers, Dharmendra Pradhan, also touted to be BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, and Jual Oram camping in the area. The saffron party roped in filmstars and prominent parliamentarians like Smriti Irani and Santosh Gangwar to campaign for the party’s candidate, Ashok Panigrahy, a former BJD MLA who defected to the BJP after he was denied a ticket.
The seat was vacated by three-time Congress MLA Subal Sahu. However, soon after his death, chief minister Naveen Patnaik moved swiftly to field his wife, Rita Sahu, as BJD’s candidate from the seat. Since the new entrant Rita Sahu was taking on a well-established Panigrahy, the battle had become one of prestige for the ruling BJD and a show of the new-found strength for the BJP.
The contest came to be seen as a direct contest between Patnaik and Pradhan, given their direct involvement. For political observers, the fight was also one which could indicate voters’ mood ahead of next year’s elections. The BJP had performed surprisingly well in the local government’s polls last year. In Bargarh, it had won 25 of the 34 Zila Parishad zones and 2 of the 3 zones in Bijepur, the Economic Times reported.
At the moment, however, the BJD has surged ahead in the optical game by winning the seat by a massive margin. With the Congress consistently losing ground in the state, it is almost clear that the next year’s assembly poll will be a direct face-off between the BJP and BJD. Currently, the BJD has 117 members and 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats. For the BJP, which has only 10 seats in the current assembly, the leap to become the main opposition is quite an achievement in itself.
What is however a more noteworthy outcome of Wednesday’s by-poll results is that the opposition parties appear to have suddenly found a new energy. Not only they outmaneuvered the BJP in both tactical and optical games that the saffron party seems to have mastered in recent times, they also foregrounded themselves as formidable organisational forces.
Are the non-NDA parties, which have been outwitted at every front by the saffron party in the last few years, springing back? Political developments over the next few months leading up to crucial assembly elections later this year and finally the 2019 general elections will make that clearer.