The Sambalpur Lok Sabha constituency in Odisha is abuzz with excitement as it prepares for a thrilling showdown

Bhaskar Parichha

The ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has recently unveiled its list of candidates, and it has chosen its very own organizing secretary and sitting Jajpur MLA, Pranab Prakash Das, to go head-to-head against the formidable Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who has been handpicked by the BJP for the coveted seat like Sambalpur during the Lok Sabha polls 2024.

Get ready for a clash of titans!

Naveen Patnaik, the Party president and Chief Minister of Odisha unveiled the list of candidates for the upcoming elections in the state after much suspense. The BJD candidates were revealed after failed alliance talks with the BJP, leading both parties to contest independently. Pranab Prakash Das, also known as Bobby, was nominated from Sambalpur as anticipated, especially after being appointed as the district observer the previous year.

Despite Bobby being viewed by many as an unorthodox candidate for the position in western Odisha, given his reputation as a prominent coastal figure, BJD insiders have revealed that his selection to run against Pradhan is a meticulously planned and strategic move.

According to political experts, if the BJD manages to defeat Pradhan, it will not only establish its electoral supremacy in the state but also deliver a devastating blow to the BJP. Pradhan, who happens to be the son of former Union Minister Debendra Pradhan, holds a significant position within the BJP in Odisha. However, the emergence of Aparajita Sarangi, a bureaucrat-turned-politician and the current MP of Bhubaneswar, has somewhat diminished Pradhan’s influence within the party.

Over the last few months, Dharmendra Pradhan has been actively engaging in political activities and reaching out to the people. He has been advocating for a special package from the Union government to enhance the tourism infrastructure in Dhenkanal, Sambalpur, and Deogarh. Following Pradhan’s request, Union Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw decided to rename the Sambalpur-Shalimar Express as Mahima Gosain Express, which now travels through Angul and Talcher to honor the Mahima Dharma religious movement.

Second in Command
Bobby, the unofficial second-in-command in the BJD, is considered a key ally of V K Pandian, a trusted aide of Naveen Patnaik who has been actively involved in the party’s organizational activities in Sambalpur for the past year. Despite Bobby’s coastal background making him an unexpected candidate for the western Odisha seat, BJD insiders believe that pitting him against Pradhan is a carefully planned move.

The election for this seat is scheduled for the sixth phase on May 25.

‘Bobby’s sway in the party is significant, leading to the mobilization of all cadre for him, especially after the first two phases. Despite the tough Lok Sabha fight, the focus remains on not losing out on Assembly seats. The BJP’s emphasis on Pradhan, their top leader in the state, will also benefit us in other regions,” shared a senior BJD leader, preferring to stay anonymous.

Bobby, the son of the late Ashok Das, a known Janata Dal leader from the 1990s, has made a name for himself as a three-time legislator. Known for his exceptional organizational skills and determination, Bobby has been recognized as a “go-getter”. In a significant move, Patnaik promoted Bobby to the position of organizational secretary in 2019, a role specifically tailored for him.

In 2019, the Patnaik-led party secured victory in four out of the seven Assembly seats within the Sambalpur constituency, a known stronghold of the BJP. The remaining three seats were won by the BJP. In the 2019Lok Sabha elections, the Sambalpur seat witnessed a fierce competition, resulting in BJP candidate Nitesh Ganga Deb prevailing over BJD’s Nalini Pradhan by a margin of just over 7,000 votes.

Dharmendra Returns
Dharmendra Pradhan, a former candidate in the 2009 Assembly elections from the Pallahara seat, is reentering the world of electoral politics after a 15-year hiatus.

In 2000, he was elected to the Odisha Assembly, and in 2004, he secured a seat in the Lok Sabha from Deogarh. Unfortunately, he faced defeat in the assembly elections of 2009. However, he later found success by being elected to the Rajya Sabha from Bihar in 2012 and again in 2018 from Madhya Pradesh. The 2024 Lok Sabha elections will be an acid test of his political prowess.

OBC Influence
Sambalpur Lok Sabha seat holds great significance for both BJP and BJD as it is in the heart of western Odisha. It is natural that this LS constituency has now transformed into a highly significant battleground for both political parties. This seat holds immense influence due to the powerful caste dynamics, particularly the OBC Chasa (farmer) community, to which Pradhan belongs. This factor alone will play in his favor.

Every party’s Favorite
Sambalpur, situated in the western region of Odisha, has experienced remarkable economic growth, especially after the construction of the Hirakud Dam on the Mahanadi River in 1957. This development has had a significant impact on the constituency, which includes the districts of Angul, Debagarh, Jharsuguda, and Sambalpur.

According to the 2011 census, the population of this area is approximately 19 lakhs. In the early years after independence, it was held by the Ganatantra Parishad and the Praja Socialist Party. As time passed, the political landscape witnessed changes, with parties like Congress, Janata Dal, and BJP also making their presence felt.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, there were 473,770 votes cast. The BJP clinched victory with 42.1% of the votes, winning by a slim margin of only 0.8%. With such a tight race, it is expected that the upcoming contest will be even more intense.

(Mr Parichha is a senior journalist, author and columnist. Views are personal.)