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Makeover For Congress

Bhubaneswar: Are the AICC Bosses serious about Congress in Odisha? The grand old party seems little bothered about its future in the state although the state unit has all the potential to emerge as the alternative to both Governing BJD and the Opposition BJP, which have often been dubbed as two sides of the same coin. These two parties have often backed each other despite their fight at the ground level. In this context, the Congress certainly has an edge over the two parties, but sans efforts to revive its earlier position of strength.

There should be no doubt over the Congress High Command’s cold attitude towards its Odisha outfit. Niranjan Patnaik, under whose leadership the party lost its status as the state’s main opposition party and lost in all the by-elections as well as the rural and urban local bodies polls, still remains OPCC President four years since announcing resignation from the post after the 2018 general elections.

For some time, it appeared that the Congress High Command had apparently decided to install Sarat Patnaik, a former OPCC Chief as the Congress President in the state. However, Niranjan was continuing as the OPCC President as of Saturday (21 May).

Niranjan himself has reiterated that there should be a change of guard in Odisha, leave alone the demands made by his detractors. Still, the Congress High Command – read Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi – have no time to think about Odisha affairs even as AICC General Secretary in-charge of the state A Chellakumar often makes noise on ‘Change of Guard’ of the OPCC. On 28 April, Chellakumar told the Media in Bhubaneswar that the OPCC will get a new President soon, maybe by the first week of May, 2022. He has already submitted a report on the possible OPCC President and the party High Command will take a call, he said.

Following Chellakumar’s visit, the AICC invited all the 9 MLAs, senior leaders to Delhi and had a discussion on the new party chief in the state. The MLAs and senior leaders were entertained in a party and they expected that the OPCC will certainly get a new President soon. AICC Boss, Rahul Gandhi, while walking in the garden talked to individual leaders and asked their opinion on the new leader. Each leader was given about one or two minutes of time to speak and the discussion was over.

There was no thinking or brainstorming for the party’s debacle in the twin polls despite the systematic decline in the Congress in Odisha since 2019 and the trend also continued in the Rural and Urban polls. In the urban civic bodies’ elections, the party managed to win seven of the 108 urban local bodies (ULBs), down from 13 in the 2013-14 polls. To make matters worse, the Congress failed to open its account in the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation election, though it won one of the 42 Corporator posts in Berhampur Municipal Corporation. Fortunately, the Congress candidates won in eight of the 59 posts in the Cuttack Municipal Corporation. Of the total 1,716 Councilor posts across the state, the party bagged 134.

Similar was the result in rural polls. Congress candidates won 37 of the 852 Zilla Parishad seats. In the 2017 elections, the party had won 60 seats.

Out of power since 2000, Congress in the 2014 general elections won 16 of the 147 Assembly seats. The tally almost halved five years later as the party bagged only nine constituencies. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won just one (Koraput) of 21 parliamentary constituencies.

This is not all; the party’s vote share in Odisha has also gradually declined from 35 per cent to below 20 percent. In the 2019 Assembly polls, the party secured 16.12 per cent votes against 25.7 per cent votes in 2014. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress got 13.81 per cent of the votes, down from 26.38 percent five years earlier.

There is a doubt whether the AICC has records of the party’s dismal performance in Odisha. This proves the hypothesis that AICC bigwigs have little interest in Odisha Congress affairs, according to political analysts.

Many senior leaders in the party blamed lack of resources as the prime factor for Congress candidates’ defeat in elections. Funds may be a factor for winning elections, but not the sole reason to win polls. Lack of unity at the top level of the party should be considered the prime reason for Congress candidates losing back-to-back elections. Under the prevailing situation, Congress needs not only a rich leader, but also a proven organizer to unite the party and take it forward.  

Meanwhile, after a lot of churning, now the Congress High Command has almost zeroed in on Sarat Patnaik, who served as the OPCC President from October, 2001 to January, 2004. Sarat may take charge almost 18 years after his first stint. Sarat, a good organizer from Balangir district, has a long experience in Congress and also as a two-time MP.

The people who were expecting a brand new face as the OPCC President also dub the development as a case of “old wine in a new bottle”. However, people close to Sarat have trust and confidence that the strong man from Bolangir could turn Naveen’s apple cart and also check the growth of BJP in the western region of the state, a strong bastion of saffron party.      

Meanwhile, OPCC President Niranjan Patnaik said he would vigorously campaign in Brajrajnagar by-elections and the party candidate Kishore Patel will win the seat. Sarat Patnaik is also camping in Brajrajnagar.

However, nobody in the Congress knows the reason behind Chellakumar’s meeting with senior BJP leader Bijay Mohapatra and former Union Minister Dilip Ray and Braja Kishore Tripathi. Are these veterans returning to Congress?

For now, Congress is about to change its guard in Odisha before or after the ensuing May 31 by-poll in Brajarajnagar Assembly segment. The next two years appears to be tough as the new OPCC President will first refurbish the house in disarray, prepare a strategy to check BJP’s growth and at the same time counter the Governing BJD headed by stalwart Naveen Patnaik.