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Can BJD Turncoat and Six-Time MP Bhartruhari Mahtab Swing Cuttack Lok Sabha Seat for BJP?

Mahtab, who has been winning the seat on a BJD ticket since 1998, is facing his toughest battle ever against political novice Santrupta Mishra from the BJD.   
Cuttack Lok Sabha seat BJP candidate Bhartruhari Mahtab during campaign trail. Photo: X (Twitter)/@BhartruhariM.

Cuttack: When Biju Janata Dal (BJD) veteran and six-time MP from Cuttack, Bhartruhari Mahtab joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in March his move not only surprised many, but it was also seen in certain quarters as a setback to the Naveen Patnaik-led regional party. However, it came as no surprise to BJD leaders who appeared relieved at his departure. Most of them, including party’s chief strategist bureaucrat-turned-politician VK Pandian, knew it was coming as Mahtab had started veering towards the saffron camp months before he actually joined BJP.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The veteran, who edits a well-known Odia daily and enjoys the image of an intellectual, is facing the toughest battle of his political career in the constituency this time as a BJP candidate even though his main rival and BJD candidate Santrupta Mishra, an erstwhile corporate honcho, happens to be a complete political novice. But this greenhorn is giving experienced Mahtab a run for his money as the six-time MP’s image has taken a knock not just because of the political somersault he has made but also due to his “lacklustre” performance. “ He has been an MP from this constituency for such a long time but we have not seen the kind of development we had expected. Cuttack city itself faces myriad problems that remain to be addressed,” said Arabinda Mohapatra, a resident of the city.

In contrast, Mishra, who has stepped into politics with a clean slate after bidding goodbye to his 28-year corporate career, is not only eager to solve the problems of people but also has concrete plans for the purpose. With a dedicated team working with him, he had a well-organised campaign that ensured that he not only interacted with every section of the electorate but also got to know about their problems. “His ideas may have a corporate world flavour but he appears to be sincere and keen to know and understand the outstanding issues of the constituency,” said Mohapatra.

BJD candidate Santrupta Mishra during campaign trail. Photo: Mishra’s Instagram page.

Mishra, who by his own confession was attracted to chief minister Naveen Patnaik because of his personality and his brand of politics, would depend a lot on the “good work” done by the BJD government in the constituency whose core lies in the millennium city of Cuttack, the old capital of the state. The city is a maze of lanes and by-lanes but roads are now much better than what they used to be till Patnaik took charge of the state. “It is also much cleaner than before. Civic amenities have improved and it is also doing well in terms of sports infrastructure,” said Subhashish Mohanty, a Bhubaneswar resident who visits his relatives in Cuttack frequently.

Mahtab, a veteran of many battles, appears to be relying primarily on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win this contest which the Congress is trying hard to make triangular but is unlikely to succeed primarily due to lack of resources. The primary task of its candidate Suresh Mohapatra would be to improve the party’s vote share of 9.5% in the 2019 elections.

While there is no denying that a section of the electorate appears sympathetic towards the BJP primarily because of their admiration for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is perceived as a strong leader who has enhanced India’s prestige at the international level, much would depend on Mahtab’s ability to encash this factor. “Prime Minister’s popularity is a major factor in favour of BJP in many constituencies of the state but that alone can’t ensure the victory of party candidates. That happens only when there is a wave which I have not been able to detect anywhere so far. So a lot would depend upon the candidates,” said political analyst Shashi Kant Mishra.

In the case of BJD, however, it is different primarily because it is a regional party whose leader has almost single-handedly led the party to victory in the last five elections. Such is the party’s dependence on chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who also happens to be its president, that people across the state are being asked to keep his image in mind while casting their votes. This also appears to be a tactical move on the part of the party which had faced the prospects of cadre rebellion in some constituencies over the selection of candidates.

Reckoned among the most prestigious Lok Saha seats of the state, Cuttack has been won by Congress several times in the past. It was won by former Union minister Srikant Jena, who is contesting this election as Congress candidate from Balasore, twice in 1989 and 1991 on the Janata Dal ticket. However, ever since 1998, it has been with the BJD with Bhartruhari Mahtab as the MP.

The speculation in the political circles is that if there is any anti-incumbency at play in this election in Cuttack it would harm Mahtab as he has been representing the seat consistently since 1998. “His changing the party is unlikely to help him in this matter. Both credit for the good work he has done and criticism for any lapses committed by him would go to him,” said Sabita Mohanty, a keen observer of Odisha politics.

In contrast, the BJD has a distinct advantage in having its MLAs in five of the seven assembly segments of the Cuttack Lok Sabha constituency. The Khandapada assembly seat was also won by the party but the sitting MLA was expelled from BJD after he made some critical remarks against chief minister’s Man Friday V.K. Pandian. The Barabati-Cuttack assembly seat is the only one under this Lok Sabha constituency to belong to the Congress.

The overall political equation in the constituency, thus, still seems to favour the BJD but the party cannot afford to take its rival lightly. Mahtab, after all, is an old war horse.

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