Naveen Patnaik, a master at handling catastrophic cyclones, wards off Narendra Modi storm; begins fresh term in Odisha

The 73-year-old Odisha chief minister and BJD president Patnaik withstood the Modi wave for the second time in five years.

Sudarshan Chhotoray May 29, 2019 13:41:17 IST
Naveen Patnaik, a master at handling catastrophic cyclones, wards off Narendra Modi storm; begins fresh term in Odisha
  • The 73-year-old Odisha chief minister and BJD president Patnaik withstood the Modi wave for the second time in five years.

  • Although he all along maintained equidistance from both BJP and Congress, Naveen was instrumental in bailing out the Modi government in critical periods both in Lok Sabha and in Rajya Sabha in passing important bills.

  • For now, Naveen's fortress in Odisha remains impregnable but he should stay alert as the lotus is in a perennial lookout for rooting in the eastern state.

Despite best efforts by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to conquer Odisha by setting up a target of winning 120 seats out of 147 Assembly segments, the party ended up with just 23 seats in 2019 increasing its tally from 10 in 2014.

There was a direct fight between Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal and BJP in 104 seats where the candidates from the saffron party stood second in at least 81. The party’s parliamentary representation from the state rose up from one in 2014 to eight in 2019 out of the total 21. The lone BJP Lok Sabha MP in 2014 was Union minister Juel Oram who had won from Sundergarh. The BJD lost eight seats this time. It had 20 MPs last time.

Naveen Patnaik a master at handling catastrophic cyclones wards off Narendra Modi storm begins fresh term in Odisha

Biju Janata Dal president Naveen Patnaik takes oath as the Chief Minister of Odisha for a fifth consecutive term at the Idco Exhibition Ground, in Bhubaneswar, Wednesday, 29 May, 2019. PTI

Oram managed to retain his seat in the latest round of Lok Sabha election. The other prominent winners for BJP are IAS-turned-politician Aparajita Sarangi from Bhubaneswar and party’s national secretary in charge of West Bengal Suresh Pujari from Bargarh and its state president Basanta Panda. But to the utter dismay of the party, national vice-president-cum-spokesman Baijayanta ‘Jay ‘ Panda who contested from Kendrapara (a four-time BJD MP who joined BJP after falling out with Naveen Patnaik just before the general elections) and another national spokesman Sambit Patra from Puri lost their elections. The BJP claimed that its vote share almost doubled in comparison to 2014. While it secured 91, 29,773 votes i.e. 38.5 percent of total votes polled in 2019, it had got 49.99 lakh votes in 2014 which was equivalent to 21 percent).

While the entire nation was swept away by the Modi wave, Odisha managed to keep the wave relatively at bay. The BJD’s vote share in the Assembly election slightly increased from 43.9 percent (97.63 lakh vote) in 2014 to 44.8 percent (crossed 1 crore this time) in 2019. But in the parliamentary election, it slightly dipped from 44.8 percent to 43.7 percent. In total, BJD secured 44.71 percent of total votes polled for both state Assembly and Parliament, BJP became second with 32.50 percent and Congress got only 16.12 percent.

Congress, on the other hand, which was the principal opposition party in the state in 2014 with 16 seats in the state Assembly lost out to the BJP. The party which secured 58.13 lakh votes in the Assembly election in 2014, lost 20.50 lakh votes this time, securing only 16.15 percent votes whereas its parliamentary votes further downsized to 13.36 percent. However, the party managed to regain its old bastion of tribal-dominated Koraput parliamentary seat (perhaps Rahul Gandhi’s rally did the trick) wresting it from ruling BJD.

The 73-year-old Odisha chief minister and BJD president Patnaik withstood the Modi wave for the second time in five years. Already in power for 19 years, the Odisha chief minister got elected for a fifth term and took the oath of office on Wednesday for the new term.

From 1997, when Naveen established the party and named it after his father Biju Patnaik, the regional outfit was in alliance with the BJP till 2009 which came to a bitter end after the communal riots in Kandhamal.

After winning the bye-elections from Aska parliamentary seat in 1997, Naveen was inducted into the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet as Minister of Steel and Mines in March 1998. Naveen has not lost any election till date. 

In 2000, within three years of forming the party, Naveen took over as the chief minister of the state after BJD won a big mandate in alliance with the BJP in the Assembly election. He took charge at a time when the impact of the Super Cyclone in 1999 that killed 10,000 people and had a catastrophic effect on 1.5 crore people was still fresh and visible. Naveen's immediate task was literally the reconstruction of the state, restoration of infrastructure and rehabilitation of people affected by the cyclone.

Naveen survived through the years by sidelining several of his detractors like former No. 2 in his father’s cabinet during (1990-1995) Bijoy Mohapatra, former working president of BJD Nalini Mohanty and once his advisor-in-chief former bureaucrat Pyari Mohan Mohapatra (who almost had total control over party and government from 2008-2013). The latest to get added to this list is Baijayanta Panda, an industrialist-turned-politician (also two-time Rajya Sabha and two-time Lok Sabha MP of BJD) and Damodar Rout, a politician of 50 years and a staunch Biju loyalist and former minister. The Odisha chief minister in course of his different tenures also dropped several ministers from his cabinet who were accused of corruption so that he can maintain his clean image.

However, the multi-crore chit fund scam in Odisha where 20 lakh people allegedly lost their savings and deposits (CBI had arrested two of his MLAs, one MP and had summoned/questioned a number of his ministers and party leaders) and Rs 1.68 lakh crore mining scam (to which Justice Shah Commission had found gross violations of rules), have stained his image somewhat although he appears to be unperturbed.

Amid all these, the beleaguered BJP which otherwise has a negligible presence in the state got a boost after Narendra Modi-led BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014 and two of the state’s senior leaders Juel Oram and Dharmendra Pradhan got inducted into the Union Cabinet. By the time BJD could apprehend a potential threat from the BJP, in the Panchayat elections in February 2017  BJP drew a surprise by winning 297 Zilla Parishad seats out of 800-odd seats pushing Congress to oblivion.

The party became No. 2 and subsequently, it stepped up its campaign against the Naveen-led BJD government in the state. Inspired by the party's overwhelming electoral success in the rural body polls, BJP president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi held their national executive in Bhubaneswar and both paid frequent visits to the state to unveil various schemes.

Special importance was given to Odisha in every government scheme. A well-designed Purvodaya Mission started on government fund while the party started a well-strategised Mo Booth Sabathu Mazboot (My booth is strongest of all) and Mission #120. Even though the party had not projected a chief ministerial candidate but Union Petroleum, Natural Gas and Skill Development Minister Dharmendra Pradhan was the face. Within a short time, Pradhan could sideline all other potential contenders and even had minimised the influence of Sangh Parivar.

However, the BJD did not give in and was in constant loggerheads with the Centre. The blockage of Mahanadi waters by Chhattisgarh through the construction of barrages allegedly with the tacit approval from the Union government and demand for special category status for Odisha kept Naveen in continuous confrontation with the Centre. Besides these two demands, Naveen also raised the issue of minimum support price for farmers and had mobilised people against the Centre by holding meetings, protests and dharnas through statewide campaigning. He also ensured that the protests take place closer to the power corridors in Delhi.

Much to his chagrin both Prime Minister Modi and Shah made frontal attack using kind of derogatory remarks like poda transformer (Burnt Transformer)’, chit fund chor, PC SARKAR (means percentage everywhere). The prime minister also appealed to the people of the state to bring double engine (meaning same party government in both the state and Centre). However, Naveen had on record said that "He (Modi) doesn’t deserve a second term."

Although he all along maintained equidistance from both BJP and Congress, Naveen was instrumental in bailing out the Modi government in critical periods both in Lok Sabha and in Rajya Sabha in passing important bills.

Interestingly, BJD supported NDA's presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind but supported Gopal Gandhi, UPA's candidate for vice-president. Naveen was the first among leaders who supported demonetisation and GST and was conspicuous by his absence in almost all Third Front initiatives. Though time and again he raised his concerns about federalism and had spoken about strengthening the federal structure, Centre and state relations he never took the lead despite efforts by Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee and Telangana Rashtra Samithi chief K Chandrasekhar Rao.

During electioneering, it was a fight between Brand Modi and Brand Naveen as both parties tried to outdo each other through billboards, cutouts, banners, posters and electronic and print advertorials. While BJD went overboard projecting Naveen as a messiah of the people showcasing a plethora of schemes like 1 kg rice, Mamata Yojana for pregnant women, increase in old age and widow pension, promotion of Self-Help Groups, construction workers’ benefit, farmer and crop insurance and direct benefit transformer scheme for farmers like Kalia Yojana with 57 lakh beneficiaries, BJP harped on the decisive leadership of Modi, Pulwama attack, surgical strike on Pakistan,
Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Ayushman Yojana and farmer benefit scheme among others.

While Modi paid six visits to the state during the elections and two more in the run-up to and Rahul Gandhi also drew a massive crowd in his Bhubaneswar, Kalahandi and Jeypur meetings. Shah also visited the state a dozen times. At least 30 top BJP leaders and Union ministers visited the state in the run-up to the polls but Naveen's constituency was largely unaffected.

The frequency of visits by many BJP leaders including the prime minister, however, sparked off a reaction from the chief minister as well. For the first time in 20 years, Naveen was on the whirlwind visit to across the state and addressed at least 150 rallies apart from his regular roadshows in a specially designed high-tech Bus. Naveen also contested from two Assembly segments for the first time -- Hinjili (Ganjam), his home turf and from Bijepur in western Odisha to check both the Congress and BJP.

Besides all these, to quell rumours of his ill-health, Naveen also released a video containing his exercise regime to dispense rumours about his ill health.

The Odisha chief minister also gave 33 percent BJD tickets to women and also urged other political parties to follow suit.  Not only these he nominated seven women candidates who were on fray for parliamentary seats and also tried to field more women in the Assembly elections. Out of the seven fielded, five women candidates won the parliamentary polls. Two of BJP's women candidates also won from the state taking the total state tally of women Lok Sabha members to seven. This time there was a massive turnout of women voters in all the four phases in the state as well.

Besides strengthening the party’s base in the grassroots by forming Biju Yuva Bahini (allegedly formed to counter RSS’s penetration lead by former Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik)  nobody could able to break that great wall. Naveen is also credited for successfully organising Hockey World Cup in Odisha, Make in Odisha-Investors meet besides successfully handling cyclones Phailin, Hudhud, Titli and latest being Fani.

For now, Naveen's fortress in Odisha remains impregnable but he should stay alert as the lotus is in a perennial lookout for rooting in the eastern state.

The author is a Bhubaneswar-based independent journalist and political analyst.

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