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Growing Political Intolerance

Bhubaneswar: The peace loving people of Odisha were happy with a peaceful by-poll held in Pipili Assembly constituency, a politically violent hotspot. There was no case of bomb hurling or murderous attack on political opponents. The authorities received only three complaints on violation of the model code of conduct and four allegations on violation of the COVID-19 guidelines. The by-election in the Pipili constituency passed off peacefully on 30 September and subsequent vote counting on 3 October. The by-election was more peaceful than three other by-polls in Bijepur, Balasore and Tirtol held after the 2019 general elections.

But, dangerous signals are now being received since one month indicating that political intolerance is growing between the leaders, activists and supporters of both the ruling BJD and opposition BJP. The latest such incident was reported from Balugaon in Khurda district when Chilika MLA Prashant Jagdev assaulted a local BJP leader. The MLA was immediately suspended from the ruling party and later sent to jail after his bail petition was rejected as the victim BJP leader belonged to the Scheduled Caste community.

While the Chilika MLA was incarcerated another disturbing incident came to light in Keonjhar district. Bombs were hurled targeting the car of senior BJP leader and opposition whip, Mohan Majhi. No one was hurt but the vehicle was partially damaged. Majhi alleged that the ruling party people were behind the attack even as the local police rejected it after arresting five suspects. The police said the attack on Majhi’s car was not political.

As the case was being discussed in political circles, BJP’s Mayurbhanj MP and Union Minister Bisweswar Tudu came out with a serious allegation calling the local District Magistrate as the President of BJD’s District Unit. Mr.Tudu alleged that certain officers humiliated him at the behest of the ruling Biju Janata Dal.

These three incidents clearly indicated that political intolerance is on the rise in Odisha as the government is preparing to hold the three-tier rural elections, likely in February 2022. The process for urban polls is also on. These two elections for the rural and urban bodies along with the cooperative bodies will be held in 2022-23 before the general elections for the Lok Sabha and State Assembly in 2024.

As rural and urban polls are considered ‘Semi Finals’  before the general election in 2024,  all the parties, more particularly the BJD and the BJP, have taken them seriously. Both the parties have started preparation at the grass root level for which the workers are charged. The recent incidents appear to be precursors of large scale political violence expected during the rural and urban polls.

In the previous panchayat polls in 2017, senior BJP leader and Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan had categorically said that 10 supporters and workers of the saffron party were killed during the rural polls while many were left injured for opposing the ruling party candidates. Though many BJD workers and supporters were also injured in different clashes, the ruling party preferred not to highlight these incidents in order not to highlight the inefficacy of their own administration.

Now, it appears that the political heat is gradually rising and it may rear its ugly head after a formal notification is made for the rural polls. The party workers of both the parties are now amassing strength before the big event. The tussle in villages is eminent as the saffron party has gained strength in comparison to the previous rural polls in 2012. The BJP had last time performed quite well in the rural polls by capturing 297 Zilla Parishad (ZP) seats out of total 853 seats, from a paltry 36. However, the situation has undergone a sea change and BJP has grown in strength if the result of the Pipili by-election is to be considered.   

The BJP which secured 297 ZP seats, will certainly attempt to further increase its tally while the BJD is determined to retain its position. Though BJD in 2017 emerged as the single largest party and formed council in 473 ZP seats, it lost around 100 seats to the BJP. The Congress, which bagged only 60 ZP seats in 2017 rural polls, has meanwhile become further weak. Therefore, the fight in the rural polls is likely to be straight between the BJD and the BJP. Since it has been proved that panchayat poll results decide the fate of parties in the ensuing assembly and Lok Sabha polls, the contest will certainly be tough.

What has become a matter of concern is that both the BJD and the BJP are resourceful for facing the rural polls. While BJD has over one crore members across the state, BJP has also been expanding its network at the booth level. The Pipili by-poll showed that the grass root level workers and local leaders of both the parties are charged up and are bracing to face each other.

In this fraught situation the State Government and the police besides the party leadership should remain prepared and ensure that no political violence ensues. The directions should go from the top level of both the parties to avoid violence, for which the present situation seems conducive. Keeping this in view, the parties should take preventive measures from today onwards. Unless both the parties make such an appeal, things may go out of control during the polls.

The saffron party which has been raising the issue of rural housing scam in a big way may further intensify its pitch during the panchayat polls. This may generate heartburns among the ruling party members, who may retaliate. Therefore, the parties should issue instructions to lower ranks not to instigate each other for violence. When the State Election Commission and Odisha Police have major roles to play, the District Collectors should also take preventive measures early. Even formation of peace committees in panchayat levels comprising local leaders of all the parties should be considered to prevent any such possible violence during the rural polls.

The conduct of peaceful rural and urban polls is the responsibility of all including government, police, political parties and above all the people. If preparations are not made ahead of time, Odisha may witness bloody rural polls in 2022, warn political analysts.