Odisha Panchayat Election 2017: Is the Naveen Patnaik magic finally wearing off?

Ask any BJD leader why the party faced such a setback in the just concluded three-tier panchayat elections in the state in which it is set to get nearly 200 zilla parishad (ZP) seats less than it did in 2012 and the stock answer is: “The fact that Naveen Patnaik did not campaign extensively this time cost us dear.”  They also accuse the BJP of breaking the ‘rules of the game’ by roping in chief ministers of two neighbouring states – Dr Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh and Raghubar Das of Jharkhand – and three Union ministers to campaign in the panchayat election. But when asked why Naveen chose not to campaign, no one seems to have an answer.

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. PTI

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. PTI

The fact, however, is that though Naveen did not campaign in the panchayat election, leaving the task to the local leaders and the party’s ‘star campaigners’ instead, he went on a whirlwind tour of the state, inaugurating a host of welfare schemes in every single district, just before the notice for the elections was issued and the model code of conduct came into force.

No one – certainly not the voters – was left in any doubt about the motive behind this inauguration spree. It is thus difficult to see how things could have been dramatically different had the BJD supremo had campaigned more vigorously. For a party that has never been tired of boasting that it was Naveen’s charisma and spotless image that halted the Modi juggernaut in Odisha in the 2014 general elections, the BJD found it hard to explain why the supremo needed to renew his connect with the people on the eve of the election to fetch votes for his party.

According to reliable sources in the BJD, there were two reasons for Naveen’s refusal to undertake an extensive campaign this time. The first, of course, was health issues which did not allow him to take the rigours of campaigning in the blazing February sun. But it is the second reason that is noteworthy. The intelligence wing had apparently warned him of the impending setback for his party, which made him skip electioneering altogether. The idea was two-fold: to provide a ready excuse for party spokespersons to explain the poor show while keeping the myth of his vote gathering ability alive for the time being.

The one clear message the voters in Odisha have sent out in this election is that they would not vote blindly for Naveen Patnaik anymore and expect more accountability from his government and local party leaders. The fact that the BJD drew a blank in two districts – Jharsuguda and Kalahandi – and managed just one seat in Malkangiri suggests that disillusionment is beginning to set in among the voters of the state.

Farmers of the state, who feel they have had a raw deal from the government, and lakhs of victims of the mega chit fund scam, who are yet to get back their deposits despite repeated government promises, have clearly voted with their feet against the ruling party. The voters have also made it clear that they are not impressed with the BJD’s done-to-death cry of ‘Central neglect’ any more.
Naveen’s own image has taken a severe beating since the 2014 Assembly elections. It is important to note that Assembly polls in Odisha were over by the time the Supreme Court ordered a CBI inquiry into the chit fund scam, worth at least Rs 10,000 crores as per the most conservative estimate, on 9 May, 2014.

In the period since then, the central agency has unearthed tell-tale proof of the complicity of BJD leaders, including a few ministers and prominent MLAs in facilitating the scam. The probe has even reached the door steps of Naveen Patnaik with his close aide Saroj Sahu being raided by the CBI recently. Pictures of Naveen Patnaik sharing the stage with some key scamsters have taken the sheen off his hitherto spotless image.

Always known to wield the axe against ministers and party leaders at the slightest hint of corruption and scandal – something that had helped build his carefully crafted image of a crusader against graft and sleaze – Naveen Patnaik has, for reasons that can only be speculated about, been strangely reluctant to act against anyone even when there is tell-tale proof of wrongdoing against him/her in his fourth term as a chief minister. No wonder his ‘warrior against corruption’ image has taken a severe beating in the last two-and-a-half years.

Naveen’s near-total dependence on a few trusted bureaucrats and systematic sidelining of all party leaders in everything from running the government and the party to formulating election strategy and even finalizing candidates has also contributed significantly to his alienation from the people. The emergence of the BJP as a strong contender for power in the state with Union Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan at the helm has also chiseled away at the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor that helped Naveen stand tall and way above anyone else in other parties all these years.

It is, however, not as if all is lost for the BJD. Even with the setback in the panchayat election, it still remains the No 1 party in the state. Fortunately for the party, it has time on hands to make amends for whatever went wrong in this election to come back strong in 2019. But as Naveen himself admitted rather candidly in his address to party MLAs, ahead of the budget session of the Assembly on Wednesday, people have become more demanding and now expect more from the party and the government. It was an indirect admission that the party cannot depend on him alone to win elections in future.


Published Date: Feb 22, 2017 05:02 pm | Updated Date: Feb 22, 2017 05:03 pm


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