A Congress bastion for decades till 2009 when it slipped into BJD control, the tribal-dominated Koraput Lok Sabha constituency in south Odisha is set to witness a keen triangular contest in the coming polls. An intense battle appears to be on the cards with BJP fielding tribal heavyweight Jayaram Pangi, who had snatched the seat from Congress in 2009 as a BJD nominee defeating veteran leader and nine-time MP Giridhar Gamang.
While Pangi is in the BJP camp this time, BJD nominee Kaushalya Hikaka and Congress candidate Saptagiri Ulaka are set to fight their maiden electoral battle in Koraput, where voting is slated to be held in the first phase on April 11. What initially appeared to be a bipolar contest between the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD and Congress has now turned into a triangular fight with Pangi, an influential Kondh tribe leader, hitting the battleground in his saffron avatar.
While Biju Janata Dal (BJD) fielded the wife of its sitting MP Jhina Hikaka in its bid to retain the seat, Congress is working hard to bounce back in the segment it lost after decades of dominance in 2009 with the defeat of former Chief Minister and ex-Union Minister Giridhar Gamang. In 2014 too, BJD nominee Jhina Hikaka defeated the then Congress stalwart Gamang, who is now in BJP.
The abduction of Hikaka by Maoists who kept him hostage for 34 days in 2012 appeared to have played a major role in 2014 parliamentary elections. The situation has changed now with discontentment brewing in the area over tardy implementation of MPLAD funds and locals alleging that Hikaka spent more time in Bhubaneswar that affected public outreach.
While Hikaka has taken a back seat, his wife Kaushalya, a school teacher in Bhubaneswar, is in the fray as BJD nominee from the tribal seat. Expressing confidence about her victory, Kaushalya says the development programmes and welfare schemes undertaken by the BJD government in the state will go in her favour.
Congress, on the other hand, has nominated Saptagiri Ulaka, son of veteran Congress leader and former state minister Ramachandra Ulaka, from Koraput. Considered a political novice, Ulaka, who happens to be a software engineer, is hopeful of putting up an impressive show to regain Congress dominance in the seat under the "dynamic" leadership of party chief Rahul Gandhi.
BJP, on its part, appeared to have received a considerable boost after former chief minister and nine-time MP from the constituency Giridhar Gamang, who belongs to Saura tribal group, quit Congress and join the BJP about two years ago. Saura tribe happens to be the second largest dominant community after Kondh tribe in Koraput and Gamang still enjoys considerable following.
While Kondhs form around a significant 47 per cent of the population in the area, candidates of all the three major political parties belong to Kondh community. An estimated 14.08 lakh voters are eligible to exercise their franchise in Koraput (ST) constituency spread over seven assembly segments.
In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJD nominee had polled 39.93 per cent of votes in Koraput, followed by Congress share of 37.98 per cent, while BJP came a third with 9.03 per cent votes. In the rural polls held in 2017 also, BJD had won 25 zilla parishads in Koraput while Congress managed to bag win four.
Though BJP put up a poor show, saffron leaders including party nominee Pangi are now in buoyant mood and say BJP's poll prospects in Koraput are bright because of pro-poor and pro-tribal works done by Narendra Modi Government at the Centre which ensured speedy development. As Assembly election in Odisha will be held along with Lok Sabha polls, anti-incumbency in assembly segments has posed a major challenge for BJD which can be seen from the party dropping two sitting MLAs from Pottangi and Gunpur.
In 2014, Congress had won three of the seven assembly seats under Koraput Lok Sabha constituency. These included Koraput assembly seat where Krushna Chandra Sagaria had won. However, Sagaria recently resigned from Congress and Joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). His exit is likely to dent Congress votes in the area.
Congress has retained its candidates in two seats - Laxmipur and Jeypore, but field a new face in Koraput (SC) Assembly constituency. BJD has changed candidates in two other assembly segments.
An aggressive BJP has fielded new candidates in five assembly seats under the Lok Sabha constituency. While Sishir Gamang, son of Giridhar Gamang, has been fielded from Gunpur, Siba Ulaka is nominated from Bissam Cuttack seat.
While no major issue is being raised in the run-up to the 2019 polls, local problems relating to drinking water, uninterrupted electricity supply, health services and rural roads are highlighted from time to time. However, locals allege that the sitting BJD MP failed to reach out to the people at the grassroots through development projects.
Though Hikaka had adopted a panchayat in Semiliguda block under Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana in 2015, residents of the area allege the parliamentarian never visited the area. The constituency has witnessed high voltage campaign by stalwarts of all major political parties.
While the prime minister has addressed a BJP election rally at Jeypore, Congress president Rahul Gandhi has campaigned for his party in Koraput with both seeking to woo tribal and women voters. Besides trading charges, both have hit out at the BJD Government in Odisha alleging misrule, inefficiency and corruption with an appeal to voters to throw it out. Leading the BJD campaign, Naveen Patnaik has been undertaking whirlwind tours across the state accusing both BJP and Congress of having neglected Odisha.
(With inputs from agencies.)