After backing CAA, Naveen Patnaik says no to NRC: BJD chief's balancing act aimed at restoring 'secular' image, say critics
After the Biju Janata Dal lent its support in Parliament to the Citizenship Amendment Act, Naveen Patnaik announced that his party does not support the National Register of Citizens.
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik is known for springing political surprises.
Many believe this element of surprise has created a distinct image which has benefitted him electorally
After supporting CAA, Patnaik has now announced that his party does not support the NRC
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik is known for springing political surprises. Many believe this ‘surprise element’ has created a distinct image which has benefitted him in one election after the other. Interestingly, after the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) lent its support in Parliament to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), Patnaik announced that his party does not support the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
“The Citizenship Amendment Act has nothing to do with Indian citizens, it only deals with foreigners. The Biju Janata Dal MPs, both in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, made it clear that we do not support NRC. I would like to appeal to our citizens to let peace prevail and not indulge in rumour-mongering,” Patnaik told the media on 17 December, before leaving for Delhi.
Incidentally, a day earlier, hundreds of Muslims holding black ribbons marched from a mosque in Bhubaneswar to a busy square demanding the revocation of the Act. A few days ago, Patnaik reportedly conveyed his party’s stance on NRC to a Muslim delegation. However, not many seemed to believe Patnaik's words.
While his critics term this as a damage control exercise (to his image), Congress says it’s lip service. On the other hand, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which heaped praises on Patnaik for the BJD’s much needed support — at least in the Rajya Sabha — questioned Patnaik's intent.
Panchanan Kanungo, a former cabinet colleague of Patnaik, now a senior Congress leader, thought the BJD’s support for the Act in Parliament was on expected lines. Kanungo maintained that, as per the Act, the lakhs of illegal immigrants — a majority of whom are Hindus and are part of BJD’s vote bank — spread across different districts of Odisha will be legalised.
“All these years, Naveen babu has fooled the people of Odisha by saying that he maintains an equal distance from the BJP and the Congress. The fact is that he has always been with the BJP,” Kanungo said. “He does something and says something else to keep his vote bank intact. Such a policy suits him the most. He has never been secular.”
On the other hand, the BJP's view is that Patnaik has little respect for commitment. Alleging that Patnaik is interested in his vote bank rather than the unity and integrity of the country, senior BJP leader and Bargarh MP Suresh Pujari said, “Naveen babu is guided by less commitment and more by circumstances. I challenge him to come out openly in support of intruders from across the border so that the people at large in Odisha can understand him. He must rethink his stance on NRC.”
Patnaik's critics are not surprised. According to veteran political commentator Rabi Das, Patnaik is arguably one of the shrewdest politicians in the country and is very image conscious. “In the past two decades, he has finished all tall political leaders and political discussion and completely depoliticised Odisha so that he remains unchallenged,” Das said. “Patnaik knows that it’s because of his image that Muslims, the traditional vote bank of the Congress, voted for the BJD en masse in the 2019 elections. On realising that his image has been dented, Patnaik is now saying that his party is opposed to NRC, which is simply an attempt to restore his credentials as a secular leader.”
Senior journalist Rajaram Satapathy is of the view that Patnaik may oppose NRC, but he can’t stop or block it. “At best, Odisha, or any other state government opposing NRC can cause a bureaucratic delay in its implementation, nothing beyond that,” said Satapathy. Patnaik's words, Satapathy believes, are “plain rhetoric meant to satisfy and pacify certain sections of people.” Some say it would be unfair to call Patnaik non-secular merely because of his support for the CAA. “There’s nothing un-secular in or about the CAA,” Satapathy added.
However, the BJD rubbished the charges. “We do not need a certificate on secularism from the Opposition parties. Our stance has been clear right from the beginning and we are against NRC. It is a considered view of the party. CAA is different from NRC, they are two distinct laws,” senior BJD leader Amar Prasad Satpathy countered.
After being allies in Odisha in 2000 and 2004, Patnaik accused the BJP of being communal before severing all ties with it ahead of the 2009 polls. It was a much talked about political divorce. Since then, Patnaik has always held that his party maintained an equal distance from the BJP and Congress. And the results are on display: BJD has handsomely won all the elections it has contested.
Post 2014, though, there has been a perceptible change BJD’s stance towards the BJP-led NDA. On critical issues such as demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax, it stood solidly behind the BJP-led NDA, but was also critical of the Union government on the Mahanadi water dispute and Polavaram issues. Critics say the regional party alters the ‘equal distance’ policy as per its convenience.
However, post the 2019 elections, which witnessed a bitter fight between the erstwhile NDA partners, many believe there has been a tacit understanding between Patnaik and the BJP’s central leadership. They allege that in return for its support in Parliament, the Odisha government, which is going through a torrid financial situation, has bargained for more assistance from the NDA regime and also safety from the CBI probing the chit fund scam cases.
Though both BJP and BJD deny such a ‘deal,’ Das, citing the BJD’s support to the NDA government in other instances such as the revocation of Article 370 or triple talaq law, said the growing bonhomie only strengthens such a view. “The BJD also supported former bureaucrat and the then BJP Rajya Sabha candidate Ashwini Vaishnaw. Is Patnaik doing all this for nothing?” asked Das.
Consider this: Odisha has received Rs 3,338.22 crore as assistance for rebuilding and restoration work post Cyclone Fani which ravaged many of the coastal districts on 3 May. The Union government too has generously sanctioned the state Rs 5,934 crore under Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) programme, perhaps the highest allocation under this head to any state.
“Everything is possible in today’s politics,” Das said, however, adding that, Naveen’s father Biju, himself a former chief minister and for whom the regional party was named, would have opposed such Bills tooth and nail.
As an old Biju loyalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, put it, “Though Biju babu was a great statesman, different from other tall leaders and politicians of his time, he was not as successful in electoral politics as Naveen. With change in time, politics and politicians have changed too. Naveen is different and has his own style.”
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