BJP eyes eastern push, but Narendra Modi needs to decide if Naveen Patnaik is friend or foe

17 April happens to be the 20th death anniversary of arguably Odisha’s most famous politician, who apart from playing an important role in the central governments led by prime ministers Morarji Desai and VP Singh, was the chief minister of the state twice. His son, Naveen Patnaik, the present chief minister, is sparing no opportunity to celebrate the occasion at every level — gram panchayats, blocks, district headquarters and the state capital. After all, Naveen, like never before, needs to exploit his father’s rich political legacy to arrest the spreading "Modi-wave" in a state, which he has been ruling uninterrupted for the last 17 years.

Interestingly, it is in Naveen’s citadel that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held its national executive meet on Saturday and Sunday (15-16 April). Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the star attraction of the meet, the venue of which specifically chosen to give the message, loud and clear, that the BJP would spare no opportunity to repeat an "Assam" in Odisha. The party is to concentrate on some states which are not its traditional strongholds but offer great prospects, as was the case in Assam last year. And in this scheme of things, Odisha occupies the position of primacy.

File image of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. PTI

File image of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. PTI

After all, under the Modi-phenomenon, the BJP seems to have developed a healthy base in the villages and certain urban centres of Odisha, evident from its bagging about 34 percent of votes in local elections held last month. The party is now clearly the most important political party in the eastern state after the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD); the Congress party seems to have gone down irretrievably to the periphery in Odisha politics.

However, it will be unwise on the part of the BJP to treat Naveen Patnaik lightly. He could prove to be a formidable opponent. Along with Sikkim's Pawan Chamling and Tripura's Manik Sarkar, Naveen is a chief minister who has won four consecutive elections, a national record so far. Since 5 March, 2000, he has not lost a single election, be it at the local (panchayat or municipal) level or at the Assembly level or at the national level for the Parliament. In fact, with the possible exception of the last local elections (which he, all told, did not lose if seen in totality), he has emerged stronger with each successive election.

Naveen has proved his critics wrong many a time. He has defied the dictum that a chief minister must know the spoken language of the state. In fact, it is a great irony that Naveen, who cannot speak Odia, is the chief minister of India’s first linguistic state; it was created in 1936 precisely on the basis of Odia being the predominant language of the people in contagious areas of the then British Presidencies of Bengal and Madras. That Naveen is a nonconventional politician is further evident from the fact that he is hardly accessible; he prefers to keep a low profile and is rarely seen at social gatherings. In fact, all this is highly surprising given the fact that before he came to the politics in 1996 at the age of 50, he was regarded as one of the leading socialites of Delhi and better known as "Pappu" (his nickname).

Naveen is a politician by accident. His father had not promoted him in politics. When Biju died in 1996, leaders of the then undivided Janata Dal at the Centre persuaded Naveen to take his father’s role by contesting a Lok Sabha by-election from Odisha. The dynasty-factor, so important in Indian politics these days, did play a role in Naveen becoming a politician, but I would say that he was a reluctant dynast. He was literally coaxed into politics by the then United Front government, most of whose important leaders were essentially promoters of political dynasties — Deve Gowda, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Chandrababu Naidu and Karunanidhi.

In my considered view, more than the dynastic or his father’s legacy, Naveen has been helped by two salient features of Odisha politics. One is the fact that Odisha has been quintessentially a non-congress state, except during the years between 1980 and 90 under late JB Patnaik when the Congress was really strong. Secondly, unlike in the case of other non-Congress ruling parties in India, caste has not played a determining role in Odisha, a huge factor that has helped Naveen Patnaik a great deal.

Broadly speaking, the leadership of Odisha politics has invariably been with the Karanas (Kayasthas), Kshatriyas, Brahmins and Scheduled Tribes. The factor of the OBC — the principal vote-bank of the non-Congress parties in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, is a little different in Odisha, as the dominant OBCs — the Khandayats — are economically and socially as good as the Karanas. Unlike in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the OBCs resented the bigger landholdings of the upper castes (that is how the politicisation of the OBC started), in Odisha, the mutual animosities between the upper castes and the OBCs have not been that deep-rooted because of the fact that the sizes of their respective landholdings have been broadly the same.

Though the three upper castes (the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Karanas) possessed more than the average-sized agricultural land holding, the Khandayats also possessed comparable quantities of land. Secondly, at the time of independence, nearly one-fourth of all land holdings in Odisha were less than 0.5 hectares in size and nearly 87.7 percent of all holdings were three hectares or less. With such small land holdings on average, there has been far less potential for political conflict to centre on the issue of agricultural land and along caste lines.

It is not that some have not tried to play caste politics; former speaker of Lok Sabha Rabi Ray (a socialist but in the Biju Patnaik-led Janata Dal), and Congress leaders Kahnu Lenka and Shrikant Jena (former Union ministers) did try to play with the OBC card but failed. In any case, their OBC politics was mainly centred on internal party rivalry — Rabi Ray Vs Biju Patnaik; Kahnu Lenka Vs JB Patnaik; and Shrikant Jena Vs Biju Patnaik.

If one leaves out the upper castes and the OBCs, then it is the SCs and STs who between them constitute about 40 percent of the Odisha’s population. Congress has traditionally been strong with the SCs, but the STs, predominantly in the tribal western Odisha, have invariably supported the former rulers (belonging to the erstwhile Swatantra party and then the BJP). Most of their leaders, including the emerging ones, have been co-opted by the major parties in the state — one of them (Giridhar Gomang) is now with the BJP after leaving the Congress, the other (Hemanand Biswal) is with the Congress.

Against this background, Naveen Patnaik is in a formidable position. Because, as far as the upper castes, and that means the traditional middle class in concrete terms, are concerned, his image, compared to any of his rivals, is much higher. Despite his long stint in power, Naveen has no scam against his name. He is commonly perceived to be non-corruptible, though there are rumours of his family in Delhi striking deals with the businessmen and foreign investors. The fact that he is a bachelor goes well with the people who think that there is no need for him to make money. Besides, to strengthen his anti-corruption image, Naveen, as chief minister, has sacked as many as 26 of his cabinet colleagues either on corruption charges or on moral grounds.

However, the biggest problem that the BJP has in Odisha is the lack of an offensive spirit, something it did not suffer from while fighting the Congress in Assam. Modi or for that matter the top BJP leadership is still confused as to whether to go all out against Naveen in Odisha. All told, the BJD, till 2009, was an important component of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Though at the ground level the BJP activists are reportedly against reviving the alliance with the BJD, the national leadership of the BJP has never ruled out such a prospect. And now that Presidential election is due and the Modi-regime still needs some support from non-NDA parties to have its candidate to succeed Pranab Mukherjee, it is understandable why one did not notice at the executive meet at Bhubaneswar any battle-cry against Naveen.

As an observer of Indian politics, I have argued many a time that contrary to the common perceptions, the BJP (or its previous incarnation, Jana Sangh) has always been an honest and accommodative partner in the game of alliance politics, but this gesture of the party has rarely been reciprocated. Despite constituting the largest block in the Janata Party after the 1977 elections, it had inadequate representations in Morarji Desai’s cabinet. It had an alliance with Bahujan Samaj Party once in Uttar Pradesh, but the BSP chief Mayawati stabbed the BJP. Until 2001, the BJP was the largest NDA constituent in Bihar, but the then Vajpayee-Advani leadership promoted Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal United (JDU) and made him the chief minister. Subsequently, it so happened that the Janata Dal (U), the younger brother to the BJP in Bihar became the elder brother; the rest is now history.

One distinctly remembers that in 1998 — general elections, Biju Patnaik was no more in the scene and all over the state people were talking of Vajpayee, not Naveen Patnaik. And yet the BJP willingly became a junior partner to the newly formed Biju Janata Dal (BJD) by Naveen. In my considered opinion, this was a big strategic blunder on the part of the BJP; it had a great chance to be Odisha’s premier political party in 1998 itself.

This is not to suggest that the BJP has missed the bus in Odisha for ever. But to catch it next time, Modi has to first make his mind clear whether Bhubaneswar’s "Pappu", unlike the "Pappu in Delhi" (that Rahul Gandhi is described in the political circles in a lighter vein) is a friend or foe.

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Updated Date: Apr 17, 2017 18:26:50 IST

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