Just half a dozen months short of its 20 year existence, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) had gone from strength to strength till the party’s dream run came to an abrupt end in February 2017 when the BJP won 297 zilla parishad seats, up from 36 in 2012. While the BJD lost about 150-odd seats that it had won in 2012 polls, the main opposition Congress lost almost half its seats and came a poor third with 60 seats.
Though the BJD finished no 1, it’s the stupendous rise of the BJP that is the talking point in Odisha. With the party on a high after it swept the assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the ruling BJD is now worried as BJP president Amit Shah has set his sights on Odisha, just over two years ahead of the assembly polls in 2019. The TINA factor that has so far worked for Naveen is now gone as BJP’s young Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan is increasingly being seen as a credible alternative. Pradhan’s success in the Ujjwala scheme has only bolstered his claim as a possible alternative to Naveen.
The BJD which looked invincible till the panchayat polls now seems to be shaky after party MP Baijayant Panda openly praised BJP’s UP poll victory and then joined a Twitter war with the BJD’s parliamentary party chief whip Tathagat Satpathy after the latter put out a barb -though he did not name anyone- that Panda was trying to split the party. The suave Panda, who is perhaps the only BJD leader after Naveen to have a pan-Odisha appeal, also wrote a newspaper article calling for ‘introspection’ alleging that Naveen was not being proactive about widespread corruption and harbouring criminals. With the prospects of a split looming large in his parliamentary party at the urging of the BJP, Naveen forced Rajya Sabha MP Bishnu Das to resign so that he could send a loyalist to keep a watch on his flock of MPs.
Though it was rumoured that he would send his elder sister and renowned author Gita Mehta to Rajya Sabha, Naveen denied it yesterday. Short of political talent in his party, Naveen is still at his wits end to find a new Rajya Sabha MP to keep an eye on his brood in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
In spite of his status as the undisputed leader of Odisha, Naveen has lost some of his sheen in the aftermath of the panchayat poll debacle as is evident from his unwillingness to act against Panda over his remarks. With the BJP set to hold its national executive next week in Bhubaneswar, Naveen is worried that any action against Panda may propel him towards the BJP and make a martyr out of him. There is already speculation that 5 or 6 BJD MPs are planning to leave the party though the action would attract disqualification under anti-defection laws. The BJP too is leaving no stone unturned to create an air of suspicion in the minds of BJD rank and file with its leaders claiming an impending exodus from the BJD to the BJP.
The tumult in the party has come at possibly the worst time for Naveen. Till 2012, his advisor and Rajya Sabha MP Pyari Mohan Mohapatra made his life easier as he was in touch with grassroots leaders while keeping the bureaucracy in check. After the infamous coup of May 2012 which resulted in the expulsion of Mohapatra, Naveen has been wholly dependent on the bureaucracy to deliver the goods. But the 2017 panchayat poll results have proved that the bureaucracy cannot be relied upon wholly to ensure success, bringing defeat to the BJD as happened with his father in the 1995 elections. Aware of the shortcomings, Naveen has now started interacting with the elected functionaries of the panchayats but that may not be enough — he must undertake a massive organisational overhaul to address the rising discontent within the ranks.
For the BJP the path to power in 2019 is not as easy as it seems after the panchayat victories as it has still to have people at the grassroots level who match the formidable organisation of the BJD. In the panchayat polls, more than BJP’s organisational strength, it was the extensive infighting in the BJD coupled with anger against large scale corruption in developmental schemes that were instrumental in the BJP’s successes. Naveen’s biggest strength is his inscrutable image and that he is not perceived as a man who encourages dynastic politics. But he probably knows it would be foolish to rest upon his laurels as a hungry and ambitious BJP may turn the tables on him two years down the line.