BJP, two Assembly seats and exodus of MPs: Naveen Patnaik faces triple poll challenge in Odisha
Summers in Odisha are harsh, and this summer especially so with Lok Sabha and Odisha Assembly elections that look to challenge Naveen like never before. Yet it would appear that this is a challenge Naveen has carefully prepared himself for in the past two years.
Naveen has so far managed to limit his political output to a straight path which does not make headlines
Naveen shuns the kind of political grandstanding that leaders like Amit Shah and Dharmendra Pradhan are capable of doing in a rally
To consider that Naveen has been seriously affected by the exodus would be to forget how ruthless he has been in charting his course
BJD chief Naveen Patnaik's rule over Odisha is as old as the current millennium. He now sits with trademark glumness on the precipice of the sixth major election of his life. Summer in Odisha is harsh and is going to be so especially for Naveen with Lok Sabha and Odisha Assembly elections looking to challenge the four-time Odisha chief minister like never before. Yet, it would appear that this is a challenge Naveen has carefully prepared himself for in the past few years.
Many leaders of the Biju Janata Dal have left the party ranks in the last year. Some, like Damodar Rout and Baijayant Panda, knew his father Biju Patnaik and had readily dropped all political compulsions when a young Naveen founded a party to form a government for a people whose language he did not speak.
Others who have also left the BJD include Balabhadra Majhi, Trinath Gomango and Sukanta Nayak, known as ace grassroots-level mobilisers with impressive track records in stretching the circle of development to include their own constituencies. Then there is Tathagata Satpathy, whose pragmatism extends to campaigns to legalise weed and is popular among the young.
But to consider that Naveen has been seriously affected by the exodus of these MPs would be to forget how ruthless the BJD chief has always been to ensure his stay at the Odisha Secretariat.
Where Naveen sees the faintest possibility of insubordination, he acts quickly. Many can remember how he brought the axe down on Bijoy Mohapatra in 2000. Mohapatra had been key in setting up the support base of the newly minted BJD but clashed with Naveen often on key decisions. When the time came for Odisha Assembly election nominations to be filed in 2000, Mohapatra, it is said, was a natural choice for the Patkura seat. Yet no green signal came from Naveen, and Bijoy held on hoping for a change of heart. Hours before the window to file nominations was to shut, Naveen announced the candidature of Atanu Sabyasachi from the seat. Mohapatra no longer had time to file nomination as an independent. His hopes for that election had been all but shut.
This Mohapatra model has been what Naveen has followed in the process of the ouster of many of the party's beleaguered leaders. Like Mohapatra then, Balabhadra, Trinath and Sukanta have all alleged a kind of systematic indifference in the months leading up to their exits.
When Baijayant's father, industrialist Bansidhar Panda, passed away, the then Kendrapada MP made no bones about noting that the top BJD brass had been made to maintain silence and not extend any words of condolence. The story of Baijayant's chopper being seized for flying low over the Chilika is well known, as is its culmination in self-proclaimed defence analyst Abhijit Iyer-Mitra's incarceration by the police (under home minister Naveen's direct charge) and his timely release during the men's Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar. Resignations from the BJD are thus more or less synonymous to expulsions. Naveen has had no scruples in bringing about either.
When the BJD chief sees possible areas falling vacant as a result of these de facto expulsions, he adds more to his ranks. Foreseeing that the Baijayant-owned Odisha TV would perhaps refuse to toe the government's line, Naveen in 2018 drafted Soumya Ranjan Patnaik, the founder and editor of the Odisha daily Sambad.
Even though Tathagata has quit the party, his Orissa Post and Dharitri still remain kind to Naveen. Naveen's stronghold on media is also why anti-incumbency never makes it to the forefront of the state's political issues. In quarters where such stirs might occur, Naveen is deft at using tourism, development and culture to quell such movements, as he did by quickly completing the Gurupriya Bridge in Malkangiri district, ensuring that Maoists no longer had a safe haven in the previously cut-off area between Andhra Pradesh and the Balimela reservoir.
Along with Soumya, Naveen also included Achyuta Samanta, an educationist who runs Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology and Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences — institutions that not only provide free education to tribals (ostensibly to save them from Maoists) but in doing so, also ensure their astute mainstreaming even if it comes at the cost of the loss of culture. But that's not all. As is well known by now, Samanta was just one of the arms at Naveen's disposal in quelling the historic Dongria Kondh struggle against bauxite mining on the Niyamgiri Hills. Samanta continues to play a key role in extinguishing whatever new protests spring up in the region.
The tribe, one of the most isolated in the world, is now a part of the Naveen government's everyday promotions. When Bhubaneswar hosted the Hockey World Cup, the opening ceremony featured a dance by Dongria Kondh women. This was the first time that the tribespeople had danced their sacred steps in public.
An enemy in sight
Discussions on Naveen and the Biju Janata Dal government's policies usually tend to finish quickly. This is mostly because Naveen has so far managed to limit his political output to a straight path which does not make headlines. Yojanas which promise health insurance of up to Rs 5 lakh to families per year are fine and dandy, but they do not become stories that a paper can milk for readership. In 2014, hot in the heels of Modi's rise to Centre, Naveen was left grappling with a force that is extraordinarily adept at grasping newsworthiness. And that force was singularly devoted to returning to power in Odisha, sans its old ally, the BJD.
The BJP could well have been ignored in Odisha, which between its floods, storms and droughts, remains wholly untrammelled by the trends of mainland politics. Yet, the aggressive campaigning that the BJP unleashed before the 2017 panchayat polls and the 2018 Bijepur byelection proved that it would not rest until it ingrains a natural presence in the political folds of the state.
The BJP lost both the elections, but made significant inroads into the vote share for one specific reason: for its assault on BJD, the BJP chose the ignored western Odisha. Not only did Amit Shah make it a point to have lunch at a Dalit house each time he travelled there (and he has travelled there no fewer than 10 times in the non-election year of 2018), but repeated campaigns by the BJP in one of the poorest parts of the country transformed it into a veritable vote bank, drawing even the usually laconic Rahul Gandhi to a rally there recently.
Naveen's home constituency is Hinjili. In coastal Ganjam, Hinjili boasts development like few others constituencies in the state. Naveen shuns the kind of political grandstanding that leaders like Shah and Dharmendra Pradhan are capable of doing in a rally. More than moral rectitude, it is his basic inability to speak Odia that forces him to keep talk small and formal. After nearly two decades in the state, Naveen still reads out from sheets where his secretaries transcribe his speeches in Roman alphabets. That he is able to announce that he will fight the Bijepur seat in the hotbed of Bargarh too, in addition to the Hinjili one, is a mark of his unique adaptability.
Despite the exodus of BJD MPs, the ruling party in Odisha has also crucially taken in Congress strong man and sitting Jharsuguda MLA Naba Kishore Das and Sundargarh MLA Jogesh Singh, reported Odisha TV. The two districts helmed by the MLAs lie to the north of Bargarh, where BJD presence is somewhat lower. Naveen has also declared Pramila Bisoi, a firebrand leader of the state's self-help group movement Mission Shakti, from Aska, where (Naveen himself noted with zany sentimentalism) he had begun his own political journey.
Both his own candidature and the announcement of others' stand as lasting proofs to Naveen's electorate that he has little ambition outside of Odisha. The state remains his priority. Outside, he is happy to stand by the BJP during no-confidence motions and every other issue.
The job of tackling two simultaneous elections from two constituencies is not an easy one. For anyone other than Naveen, it would perhaps have been downright impossible.
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Let us look at a few smaller equations and solve the larger riddle where Opposition politics stands now