Odisha Assembly election 2019: Naveen Patnaik shifts out of comfort zone as Narendra Modi threat looms large

Give it to the BJP. It has managed to shake Naveen Patnaik out of his comfort zone. He is on a goodwill garnering mission, taking selfies with young people, interacting with party workers, and, in general, is trying to be seen as accessible to all. It’s a bit odd coming from a chief minister of Odisha who hardly ever showed enthusiasm to interact with party functionaries and even his own legislators in the last 17 years in power. Forget the fact that he didn’t even try enough to be comfortable with Odia, the language of the state he heads.

Naveen Patnaik and Narendra Modi. AFP

Always happy to leave the management of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) to someone else — first it was former chief secretary Pyarimohan Mohapatra till 2012 when the latter led a failed coup and was shown the door; then senior party leader Kalpataru Das who died in 2015; and now his private secretary V Pandian, who is rumoured to be taking critical calls on party matters — Naveen Patnaik appears to have realised finally that the laidback approach won’t do any more. He is no more being viewed as a reclusive leader but an indifferent one.

The public relation drive obviously follows the rude jolt delivered by the BJP in the panchayat polls. The latter increased its tally eightfold, from 36 in 2012 to 306 in 2017. While in western Odisha, traditionally a BJP stronghold, the party scored spectacularly well. It also performed well in the northern and southern districts. In the coastal bastion of the BJD, it made inroads for the first time. With a 33 percent vote share, it pushed Congress to the third position.

The BJP may be celebrating too early and too much. After all, these are local body elections, but then hype has always been an instrument for capturing public imagination for the party. If the just-concluded national executive meeting in Bhubaneswar was almost an announcement of the coming of age of the party in Odisha, it follows a strategy which is part of a long-term game plan that the party has always been good at executing. It may not win the 2019 Assembly Election in Odisha yet given its thin coastal spread, but the BJP’s emergence has certainly scared Naveen Patnaik.

He is not up against a moribund Congress this time. His challenger is an energetic rising party with Narendra Modi as its mascot. Given his disconnect with the grassroots and numerous allegations of scandals involving some of his ministers in all these years, he does not look strong enough to withstand the Modi force like Nitish Kumar did in Bihar. So, he has to go for a quick course correction both on a personal front as well as that of the BJD. He cannot let others do the job for him like earlier.

The problems for Naveen Patnaik are many, though. First, his party’s image has been hurt due to several big ticket scandals, the prominent being the chit fund scam and the Rs 60,000 crore mining scam, to which some of his ministers and party functionaries were linked one way or the other. While his personal image has remained clean, it’s not the case with other members of the party. It is not flattering either that in certain circles his rule is being equated with the rule of Congress’ JB Patnaik.

Second, the factionalism in the party is turning out to be a massive problem. It was evident during the Jan Sampark Padyatra last year. Several BJD leaders took out their own yatras giving a clear hint that the party was not united. Only recently, BJD's two senior members of the Parliament — Tathagat Satpathy and Baijayant Panda — got into an ugly face-off. Naveen Patnaik’s excessive reliance on bureaucrats in party matters has alienated many leaders. For all practical purposes, he was the leader of the party but not in control of it. There is a possibility of many disgruntled BJD leaders switching loyalty to the BJP, a favourite tactic of the latter to weaken rivals.

Third, with the opposition virtually absent, he operated in a no-alternative situation. The panchayat poll results indicate that the BJP has moved in to occupy the space of the opposition, which used to belong to the Congress. Despite the bonhomie that the party shares at the Centre, the BJP has made no secret of its ambition to conquer Odisha. With the Sangh Parivar network at work in different spaces, from tribals to the sphere of education, the BJP already has a base to fall back upon. The local body results show that the party has gained huge acceptance in rural Odisha too. Naveen Patnaik certainly has a tough job at hand, of winning these constituencies back.

He cannot leave the task to others. So there’s a new Naveen Patnaik around.

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Updated Date: Apr 17, 2017 18:14:53 IST

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