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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Odisha: It’s Naveen Patnaik v/s BJP as BJD falters against Modi-Shah

As the Modi government celebrates three years of its rule at the Centre this week, a lot has happened on the political front in the state since May 2016

Written by Debabrata Mohanty |
May 22, 2017 5:49:20 pm
Naveen Patnaik, Odisha, Odisha BJP, Modi, Narendra Modi, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, UP, Naveen Patnaik drops ministers, BJP, Indian Express, India news Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik arrives in Odisha Assembly, 18 May 2017. (Source: PTI, file)

From being a state which only made national news for starvation deaths, Maoist attacks, natural disasters or its popular chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s complaints of ‘central neglect’, Odisha has managed to sneak into the national headlines more often during the last one year than at any time in the last decade—that too for other reasons.

While the televised image of Dana Majhi, a poor and illiterate tribal walking with the body of his wife on his shoulders dominated news TV and went viral on social media for most of July, Odisha has become an important state for the BJP, so much so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited it at least four times since February last year and hailed his party’s stellar performance in this year’s Odisha panchayat polls in the midst of campaigning for the UP assembly polls.

As the Modi government celebrates three years of its rule at the Centre this week, a lot has happened on the political front in the state since May 2016.

The panchayat polls: Very few in the BJP, let alone the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), believed that the party stood a chance in rural Odisha where the BJD with its formidable organisation ably supported by the lower bureaucracy, was like a proverbial juggernaut. Naveen Patnaik was so confident of a victorious outcome (several district collectors predicted 90 per cent of the zilla parishad seats would go to the BJD) that he did not campaign barring a visit to his home district of Ganjam.

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In contrast, the BJP — an urban-centric party — led by union minister for petroleum and natural gas Dharmendra Pradhan pulled out all stops, getting chief ministers of neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand to campaign in bordering districts. When the final tally came in, the BJD still stood first winning 473 of the 853 zilla parishad seats, but the BJP won 297 seats, up a staggering 261 from its 2012 performance. It pushed the Congress to a poor third position.

Rumble in the BJD: The loss in the panchayat polls led to loud rumbings. In a party where Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had the last word on every issue, there are now too many voices contradicting him. About a month after the BJP’s stellar performance in the panchayat polls, the first signs of cracks in the 20-year-old regional party appeared: its parliamentary party spokesperson, the suave MP Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda had a Twitter spat with chief whip Dhenkanal Tathagat Satpathy. The latter insinuated that Panda was trying to split the BJD with the BJP’s help.

Satpathy also alleged that the BJP was trying to force a snap poll in Odisha by the end of 2017 or early 2018, a year ahead of schedule. Panda shot back, calling out the party-hopping Satpathy. He followed it up with an article in an Odisha daily seeking introspection within the party and alleging that the party had been taken over by a cabal of opportunists. The Lok Sabha MP from coastal Kendrapara district, whom Naveen distrusts over his perceived proximity to PM Narendra Modi, rubbed it in with the allegation that not just the government but the party too was being run by bureaucrats.

Last week, he was removed from the position of party spokesman. That the party was going through a serious crisis was evident when leader of the parliamentary party in the Lok Sabha, Bhatruhari Mahtab wrote in a newspaper that the BJD was panicky at the rise of BJP and then in another article praised the way Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana was implemented. Despite warnings, he has refused to stop writing.

BJP’s national executive meet: Almost 20 years after it held its national executive meet in Odisha, the party, decided to hold its executive meeting in Bhubaneswar after its performances in the panchayat polls. Attended by chief ministers of more than a dozen BJP-ruled states, scores of union ministers and senior BJP leaders, it was the show that left the city dazzled and bewitched. With party president Amit Shah making it clear that BJP would win Odisha at any cost, PM Modi turned his 4 km ride from Raj Bhavan to the meeting venue into a mega road show, as he waved at thousands of people while dangling from the footrest of a bullet-proof Range Rover SUV. As Modi walked down the main thoroughfare, greeting and shaking hands with people, it was clear that the BJP’s conquest of Kalinga (as Odisha was formerly known) had begun on a strong and positive note. The scale of the show and BJP’s subsequent activities have now drawn the battle lines between the BJD and BJP. The Congress, despite securing 20 per cent of the popular vote in the panchayat polls, has already lost the perception battle — even its own leaders are writing the party’s epitaph.

Despite all the gains, the road to power for the BJP is a steep and long one. Without much of an organisational presence in the 30 districts, particularly in the coastal areas, the BJP will find it difficult to stop the BJD’s electoral juggernaut. After 17 years of BJD rule, the people may be looking for a change but there is no public anger against Naveen Patnaik which was the case with late Congress strongman JB Patnaik.

For the BJD, Naveen is still its biggest asset but he needs to connect with the party’s lowliest functionaries on a regular basis. If he can keep the bureaucracy in the districts reined in and deliver on at least 50 per cent of the electoral promises he made, he can give the BJP a run for its money. He also needs to up his game on the perception front and promote himself as a decisive and proactive leader.

Politics in Odisha have not been this interesting in the last two decades.

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