Union Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan is fast emerging as the numero uno choice to lead the BJP in the Odisha Assembly elections in 2019. According to sources close to him, Pradhan, 48, who is currently a Rajya Sabha member from Bihar, has also made no secret of his desire to serve the people of Odisha.

In a tactical image building exercise, Pradhan’s supporters have made sure that his posters are seen at all crucial points of Bhubaneswar in view of the party’s national executive meet that is being held for the first time in Odisha.

“The fact that there is no other state leader who can match his image has automatically propelled him to the position of the strongest CM candidate. If you see his career graph, you will realise that his rise has been meteoric in the past 6-7 years. He had never hidden his desire to come back to Odisha. His present experience at the Centre as a minister of one of the most important and cash-rich ministries, has also increased his profile. His only visible competition is from Jual Oram, his Cabinet colleague,” a senior Bhubaneswar-based party leader said.

Pradhan’s father, Debendra Pradhan, was also a BJP MP from Deogarh, Odisha, and served as a minister of state in the 1999 A.B. Vajpayee Cabinet. He later vacated his seat for his son, Dharmendra, in 2004.

SMSs and email sent to Pradhan seeking his views on him being a CM candidate did not elicit any response.

Jual Oram, 57, who heads the Ministry of Tribal Affairs at the Centre, is senior to Dharmendra Pradhan in every aspect. A four-time MP from Sundargarh constituency, Oram was among the first founding BJP MLAs from the state and has also served as the state president of the party.

Of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state, Oram is the sole BJP MP, while the rest are with the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Out of the total 147 Assembly seats, the BJD had won on 116 in the 2014 state elections, while BJP could bag just 10, coming at the third position behind Congress which had won on 16 seats, something that the party plans to dramatically change in the 2019 polls under Dharmendra Pradhan.

It was Pradhan who played a more “visible” role in the local elections that were held in Odisha earlier this year and according to party sources, did close to 50 rallies in various parts of the coastal state.

In what has been termed as the “resurgence” of the party in the state, the BJP won on 294 seats out of the 849 seats that went to the polls, which is almost 10 times what it won in the last election. Though the ruling BJD, which has been in power in the state for the past 17 years, emerged the winner in the local polls by winning 460 seats, it had more reasons to worry as its tally in the last election was 651, a loss of nearly 200 seats. Once the results were announced, it was Pradhan who was given the most importance by the local media who rushed to him for his sound-bites.

Political observers from the state, however, say that BJD MP from Kendrapara, Baijayant Panda — who too, like Pradhan, has financial clout and just like Pradhan, enjoys a clean and suave image — might emerge as the dark horse.

“2019 is not too far and no one can deny that the BJD, which has been in power for more than 17 years, is now facing anti-incumbency. The 53-year-old Panda, who is one of most street smart politicians, in all likelihood will do something ‘big’. If that happens, Panda, who enjoys a considerable following, will emerge as one of the readily acceptable faces of the BJP, upstaging Pradhan,” a senior Bhubaneswar-based journalist said.

State BJP leaders, too, accepted that Panda, who has very good relations with senior BJP leaders, will be a welcome choice for the party. “His inclusion will be a boost for us in Odisha and as we have seen in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Assam (Himanta Biswa Sarma), the party leadership is not averse to inducting leaders from the opposition party,” a party functionary said.

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