For 17 years, Naveen Patnaik was the face of the party and the government. As he seeks re-election for a record fourth time as Orissa Chief Minister, are the chinks beginning to show? By Debabrata Mohanty.
Last month, when tickets were being distributed, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) chief and Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik would come out of his residence, briefly read out the names of candidates and then retreat behind the doors. It was in sharp contrast to his father Biju Patnaik who mingled closely with his cadre. “In good times, Naveen could get away, but this time, the knives could be out,” said a party leader.
As the 67-year-old Naveen leads the BJD in the 2014 elections and seeks re-election for a record fourth time, this is perhaps one of the most challenging phases of his political career. If the BJD pulls it off, not only will Naveen go down in Orissa’s history as the only politician to be the chief minister four times in a row, it will also show that the Naveen magic has not waned even after a decade — his father Biju Patnaik, though far more popular, had been chief minister only twice. But this election, Naveen will have to pull out all the stops. Besides facing anti-incumbency and murmurs of rebellion and dissent, his one-time adviser Pyari Mohan Mohapatra is no longer by his side. Orissa is seeing simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. While the first phase of polling was on April 10, the next round is on April 17.
“Even with 100+ seats, he never felt comfortable in the Assembly during the last five years. If the BJD’s numbers get restricted to 90, he will be in trouble. A lower Lok Sabha tally will also reduce his leverage in national politics and expose him to further attacks should the NDA come to power,” said a senior party leader.
Opposition leaders and partymen say Naveen survived all these years because of smart votebank politics and also because there was no alternative in the state. While the Congress never recovered from its defeat in the 2000 Assembly elections, the BJP gained little from its alliance with the BJD or even after parting ways. Besides, Naveen had the right man in his team in Mohapatra.
However, their relationship turned frigid over a series of incidents, till it ended in Mohapatra’s exit. In June 2012, Naveen suspended Mohapatra, as well as a few others, from the party over an abortive coup attempt while he was away in London. Four months later, he expelled Mohapatra, bringing to an end a 12-year-long association with the man who is said to have taught him the basics of politics.
“Mohapatra played a vital role in his success. If Naveen could get away without speaking Odiya while ruling the state for the last 14 years, the man responsible was Mohapatra,” says BJP general secretary Dharmendra Pradhan.
Naveen was never a hands-on leader and left the intricacies of governance to Mohapatra. Till 2012, the state police was effectively under Mohapatra’s control and he even decided postings. It was Mohapatra who thought of the Rs-2-a-kg rice scheme for BPL families that helped the party score a record win in the 2009 Assembly elections, with over 100 seats in the 147-member House.
“Till I was in the party, we played the good cop-bad cop game. For all the wrong decisions, I was willing to be the scapegoat. For all the good decisions, he took the credit,” Mohapatra told The Indian Express in September last year.
Under Mohapatra, the BJD’s membership rose to 27 lakh in 2012 from less than 10,000 in 2000. In the 2004 and 2009 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, Mohapatra chose most of the candidates. After dumping the BJP just ahead of the 2009 Assembly polls, it was Mohapatra who micro-managed the elections in which the BJD won its biggest victory to date.
This time, without Mohapatra, the ticket distribution process has seen several hiccups. Naveen’s critics blame his new advisers, especially Panchayati Raj Minister Kalpataru Das, accusing him of mismanaging the polls.
With less than a week to go for the second phase of elections on April 17, Naveen faces trouble from within the party. In Jajpur district, which used to be a BJD bastion, he dropped local strongman Prafulla Ghadei and gave the Sukinda ticket to Ghadei’s son Pritiranjan, seen as a lightweight candidate. To checkmate Ghadei, he rewarded Akash Dasnayak, the actor-son of his political rival Mayadhar Nayak, in Korei constituency. In Kendrapara, an old anti-Congress fort, Naveen’s recent meetings were thinly attended. In Balasore, he denied a ticket to former minister Raghunath Mohanty while he renominated two ‘unpopular’ MLAs, Jiban Pradip Dash and Sudarshan Jena. In Naveen’s home district of Ganjam, rising dissension could see the party lose, for the first time, the Berhampur Lok Sabha seat and the Assembly segments of Chhatrapur, Kavisuryanagar and Polasara.
From an initial projection of 120+ seats a couple of months ago, the party is now looking at 85-90 seats in the Assembly. Similarly, in the Lok Sabha elections, the party may have to be content with a couple of seats less than its present tally of 14.
Political observers estimate that with winning margins in this election expected to be slender, the BJP may eat into the BJD votes, thus helping the Congress.
But as Chief Minister for 14 years, Naveen got a lot of things right. Despite inheriting a state that was in 2000 teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, under him, Orissa’s public finances started improving from 2004-05. The state’s annual per capita income increased from Rs 10,662 in 1999-2000 to Rs 24,098 in 2009-10. The state plan outlay increased from Rs 2,553 crore in 1999-2000 to Rs 21,467 crore in 2013-14, almost 10 times. Social indicators improved and his government started several schemes such as those for pregnant and lactating mothers and the distribution of bicycles to girl students.
During the past 10 years, the BJD government signed nearly 100 MoUs with steel, power and aluminium companies, including big names such as Posco and Tata Steel with a total investment commitment of Rs 6 lakh crore. In September last year, the Reserve Bank of India said that Orissa had emerged as the hottest investment destination for new projects during 2012-13 by getting investors to commit around Rs 53,000 crore.
“Though Dalits and tribals were earlier with the Congress and the BJP, through a series of doles such as cycles, old-age pension and rice, he won them over. By promoting women self-help groups, he got a votebank that has stood by him,” says Panchanan Kanungo, former BJD leader.
Naveen’s best moment in recent times came in October 2012 when he led the Orissa government to evacuate over a million people from the path of cyclone Phailin in Ganjam, Puri and Khurda districts. In October 1999, a bungling Congress government, headed by Giridhar Gamang, had ignored the Met department’s warning of a super cyclone, leading to over 10,000 deaths in the coastal zone of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Puri, Bhadrak and Balasore districts. The Phailin evacuation and the government’s subsequent response earned it plaudits.
For someone who didn’t speak the local language, who wasn’t exactly known to be a mass leader, Naveen has come a long way. In 1997, when he came to Orissa after the death of his father, Naveen was the most underrated politician of the country. His opponents sniggered at him and called him “Naveena (novice)”. Damodar Rout, now Naveen’s health minister, famously called the new party’s electoral symbol, the conch, “genda” (snail), and founder-member Bijoy Mohapatra (now in the BJP) would ignore Naveen at meetings of the party’s political affairs committee. But as he now looks set for another term as CM, these critics — many of them now his colleagues — may well have to eat their own words.
Over the years, Naveen worked with precision to get back at his rivals. On the eve of the 2000 Assembly elections, Naveen denied Bijoy Mohapatra a BJD ticket a few minutes before the nominations closed. It was a political knockout that left Bijoy Mohapatra marginalised in Orissa politics for more than a decade. That was Naveen’s first big political moment. In March 2009, on the eve of the general elections, he severed BJD’s 12-year-old alliance with the BJP, dubbing it “communal” for its alleged role during the Kandhamal riots of August 2008. In between, he showed the door to scores of BJD ministers and MLAs as and when he saw them as political threats.
In a state where the Congress once had a near-total stranglehold, Naveen also changed the way politics was defined. “He was not your usual politician who had a family and did everything to keep his family’s interests above the state. That way, it was easier for him to attack the Congress which represented crony politics all along. So any allegation by the Congress against him did not stick,” says Rabi Das, political analyst.
Having felled all potential rivals in the party, there should have been little or no roadblock to the BJD clocking another effortless victory in 2014. But Naveen himself probably believed otherwise. Despite internal projections of 100+ seats, he started inducting people from the Congress, BJP, CPI, JMM and Odisha Jan Morcha (headed by Priya Ranjan Mohapatra). Prominent among those who joined the BJD were Leader of Opposition and senior Congressman Bhupinder Singh and former BJP ministers Bimbadhar Kuanra and Golak Nayak.
Though Naveen has dropped at least 35 of the 100-odd sitting BJD MLAs, he will find it tough to fight back anti-incumbency. His rice scheme is hardly a poll issue anymore in the coastal areas as land owners here complain that the scheme has made it difficult for them to get farmhands.
Also, having not allowed a second generation of BJD leadership to grow, the party’s future seems uncertain. There are already whispers in party circles that Naveen is planning to get a close relative to take his place some months after the elections.
The chinks are beginning to show in the BJD. Whether they are large enough to sink the 17-year-old party in the 2014 polls is not clear yet, but the BJD and Naveen are set for a very choppy ride.