AS THE BJP holds its two-day National Executive in Bhubaneswar, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik perhaps is reminded of how his father Biju Patnaik once described the party. The BJP, Odisha’s tallest leader had said, was no more than a “signboard” party.
These days in the state capital, the signboards, and signs, are ever present.
Huge hoardings line the streets, with photos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and its fast-rising Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan. Party flags flutter everywhere, while at any given point of the day, local news channels’ vans are parked outside the state party headquarters on ‘Janpath’ road.
The BJP is fresh off its most successful poll performance ever in Odisha, in the panchayat elections. It is holding a National Executive in the state 20 years after the last one. And were there any doubts that the next goal for the party is winning this state, which goes to polls in 2019 and that has seen the BJP mostly as a junior partner in a BJD-led alliance, Modi settled them on Friday. Tweeting new year greetings to people in different parts of the country, Modi slipped in a message about his Odisha trip, adding that he was “looking forward to being among the people of the wonderful state”.
Seventeen continuous years in power in a state with a population of over 43 million makes the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), formed only three years before that, arguably the most successful regional party of the country. It has defied all predictions, including that it would disintegrate after Biju’s death, particularly when led by a suave, city-bred man considered more comfortable in Delhi and New York party circles than on the streets of one of the country’s poorest states.
But 17 years of incumbency also means that there is a huge vacuum ripe enough to be filled by a resurgent Opposition such as the BJP. Even as its reliable and relentless election machinery got into gear at least a year ago, the BJD is showing the fatigue of incumbency, complacency, and a chief minister fighting off health rumours and questions about his lack of public appearances.
BJD leaders speaking on condition of anonymity cite the recent panchayat polls, fought in Odisha on party symbols. Naveen campaigned all of one day, that too in home district Ganjam. Party leaders say the CM stayed away believing his bureaucrats and the intelligence branch which told him the party would win 90 per cent of the seats.
Eventually, the BJD won 473 of the 853 zila parishad seats (down 178), the BJP got 297 (up a stunning 261), and the Congress finished a poor third at 60 (down by half). Modi made a note of the party’s performance amidst the Uttar Pradesh Assembly campaign.
But Naveen perhaps believed there was little reason for him to doubt his officials, who have long held sway in the Odisha administration in the absence of a second-rung BJD leadership. They also helped him see past Cyclone Phailin in 2013, which was hailed as one of the few tragedies in India to have been controlled largely through an efficient administration. But that was before 2014, before Modi’s ascendance, and before the BJP made Odisha a mission.
Biswajit Mohanty, who recently authored a book on Naveen, ‘Chasing his Father’s Dreams — Inside story of Odisha’s longest serving chief minister’, explains why the 70-year-old BJD leader looks vulnerable after a long time. Of the 3.4 crore people who would vote in Odisha in the 2019 polls, 60 per cent would be in the 18-35 age group. Mohanty says that for them, Modi is a more attractive choice. “The youth voters are unaware of Congress misrule and all that they see is how Odisha is lagging behind compared to other states. In rural areas, there is deepening poverty in agriculture-related work while in urban areas, there are few jobs either in the government or the private sector. Naveen has no new narrative to offer,” says Mohanty.
The Congress, meanwhile, appears to be in free fall, with its vote share slumping to a new low of 21 per cent in the panchayat polls. PCC chief Prasad Harichandan claims the BJP used money power and that the Congress will bounce back in 2019. However, even senior leaders admit there is no hope if the Congress doesn’t get its house in order. “Though anti-incumbency has caught up with the BJD, the BJP has been the beneficiary due to our internal squabbles,” says a senior Congress leader.
BJP: FROM BOOTHS TO CENTRE
The BJP’s sharp rise in the panchayat polls comes just three years after the 2014 elections, when the BJD had defied forecasts to increase its vote share to 44 per cent, in the process securing its highest-ever tally of 117 seats in the 147-member Assembly. While the BJP had performed better than in 2009, in both the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, held simultaneously, it ended up with only 1 and 10 seats respectively in the two Houses.
The BJP, which was part of an alliance with the BJD between 2000 and 2009, had later admitted it did not have the necessary infrastructure at polling booths to cash in on the Modi wave. Many of its leaders, such as K V Singh Deo, Sameer Dey and Manmohan Samal, who had been state ministers, were fighting charges of misuse of power and corruption.
With these leaders being eased out, Dharmendra Pradhan came into the picture. Then a Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar, the leader, who has worked his way into proximity with the Modi-Shah-Arun Jaitley combine, was given the prestigious portfolio of Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Petroleum and Natural Gas. The 47-year-old has since been groomed as the top-most BJP leader in Odisha, leaving behind other senior leaders like Union Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram and Bijoy Mohapatra.
The BJP also set about planting its feet on the ground after 2014, by launching a drive to add 30 lakh new members through the missed-call programme, and setting up 1,000-odd committees at the mandal level. With national joint organising secretary Soudan Singh overseeing the effort, it had booth-level workers in place in at least 35,000 of the 92,000 polling booths by the time of the panchayat polls. Over the past year, each booth-level worker has been getting a monthly remuneration of Rs 2,000, to keep them motivated.
Alongside, Odisha has seen the Sangh Parivar rise meteorically. From 1,360 shakhas in 2000, the numbers are up to 2,000. The RSS has a presence in 2,000 of the state’s 9,000 big villages, has over 50,000 active swayamsevaks, and runs a thousand Saraswati Shishu Mandir schools that now boast 100 per cent pass rate in Class X exams. Points out Samir Mohanty, the Prant Sanghchalak of the RSS in Odisha, “Though people believe we grow when the BJP is in power, we grew phenomenally only after 2010, when the party was out of power.”
Along with this organisational push, the BJP has kept up its relentless attacks on the Naveen Patnaik government. Since May 2014, when the Modi government was formed, at least 40-odd Central ministers have visited the state, either to oversee development work or hold public meetings to talk about Modi’s schemes such as Ujjwala Yojana. The Prime Minister himself has come to Odisha three times in three years, and Saturday’s visit marked his fourth.
There has been constant talk of the Petroleum Ministry, led by Pradhan, providing 30 lakh free gas connections to poor households in Odisha by March 2019, apart from another 25 lakh connections to households above the poverty line. Pradhan himself is in Odisha almost every weekend, hopping from Malkangiri in the south to Mayurbhanj in the north.
“Odisha would be the BJP’s laboratory for the Modi government’s pro-poor schemes in the 2019 polls,” Pradhan said Friday. “People have made up their mind to reject the BJD.”
With even the most optimistic BJP supporter not expecting Modi to repeat his 2014 general election performance in 2019, Odisha would also be a rich catchment area with its 21 Lok Sabha seats.
The BJP has been talking about poor healthcare facilities in villages, over 120 infant deaths in Jajpur and Malkangiri due to Japanse Encephalitis and malnutrition, the poor growth of agriculture (3.4 per cent between 2011 and 2016), over 700 farmer deaths, and many alleged suicides related to farm distress. It is also set to step up the heat on a multi-crore chit fund scam for which several top BJD leaders, including Mayurbhanj MP Ramchandra Hansda, are still in jail. Party sources say that leading up to 2019, the BJP would go to each block with the message that the development work of the state government is actually being funded by the Centre.
BJD: ALONE AT THE TOP
On the contrary, there is little activity at the BJD office located near the Biju Patnaik International Airport. There are just around half-a-dozen posters, with the BJD’s conch symbol and Naveen’s photo. Inside the party office sit around 8-10 partymen, who admit that the office stirs into activity only when the Chief Minister comes visiting. He last came two days ago on a rare visit, for a review of the panchayat poll performance.
The CM’s declining public appearances have been one of the most fertile topics of discussion in Odisha’s political circles for a long time. During the 2014 Assembly poll campaign, Naveen appeared briefly at public meetings, mostly to read out names of party candidates.
This was a change from the old Naveen Odisha knew, who had won admirers for rebuffing a partner like the BJP just before the 2009 polls, ostensibly following corruption allegations, and going on to win.
Naveen can also lay claim to improving Odisha at many levels in the last 17 years. The state that was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2000 has seen its public finances improve from 2004-05 onwards. The per capita income increased from a mere Rs 10,662 per annum in 1999-2000 to Rs 61,678 in 2016-17. The overall literacy rate increased from 63.08 per cent in 2001 to 73.45 per cent in 2011, while the female literacy rate has reached close to the national average of 65.46 per cent.
But Naveen has failed greatly to bring the industrialisation he promised in 2004. Before he took over, Odisha had few industries, except PSUs such as NALCO, HAL and the Rourkela Steel Plant. Between 2004 and 2016, it signed MoUs for Rs 8.8 lakh core of investment. However, only 28 per cent of the proposed investments have so far materialised due to problems in land acquisition, delays in getting various statutory clearances and inaction in providing mineral linkages. Naveen’s lack of decisive action on setting the pace for industrialisation has not done much for his image.
The CM has also found himself out of sorts with the Modi dispensation, despite trying very hard over the last three years to keep the NDA government in good humour. One reason for Naveen’s tractibility was the CBI probe into the Seashore chit fund scam, which almost reached his doorstep, with his former personal assistant Saroj Sahoo being interrogated. In the previous UPA government, Naveen had personal rapport with several ministers, including Kamal Nath. Now, he has little access to Modi and Shah.
With the control at the top weakening, the BJD has been seeing increasing friction in its ranks. The cracks have been around since 2012, when Naveen lost his right-hand man and Rajya Sabha MP Pyarimohan Mohapatra. With Naveen never a natural grassroots leader as his father had been, Mohapatra was a crucial glue between him and the BJD rank and file. In May of 2012, Mohapatra, who felt he was being sidelined, tried to stage a coup when Naveen was in London. He was expelled, and died last month from cancer, still estranged from Naveen.
With Mohapatra gone, Naveen is believed to have reposed his entire trust on his private secretary V K Pandian, an IAS officer, and a few other officers. Suryo Patro, former minister and senior BJD leader, blames the bureaucrats for the party’s zila parishad performance. “It’s true some unscrupulous bureaucrats are spoiling our party’s popular programmes. They need to be dealt with a heavy hand,” he says. However, another party leader points out that it would be wrong to blame officers such as Pandian. “He does what the CM asks him to do.”
The party tensions also saw at least 90-100 BJD rebels stand against official candidates in the panchayats. Naveen tried his best to dissuade a few rebels and suspended some, but others chipped away at the BJD votes. Party MLA Pravat Biswal denies the CM took all the calls. “We MLAs decided who would be the party candidate. The CM took into account our suggestions and then decided the best candidate,” he says.
Stunned by the results, insiders say, Naveen rebuked young ministers, particularly the one in charge for Mayurbhanj district where the BJP did exceptionally well. Amid speculation of a split in the BJD Parliamentary Party, sister Gita Mehta, 73, arrived in Bhubaneswar, adding another layer to the confusion in the party ranks.
Since then, there have been other changes from Naveen’s side. Early this month, he started a review of the panchayat poll results by meeting panchayat-level functionaries, his first such meeting in 17 years. Though he does not carry a mobile phone, of late he has been publicly posing for selfies. Though he did not visit Kalinganagar area where a dozen tribals were killed in police firing in 2006, on April 12, he visited Bhadrak, where communal violence gutted hundreds of shops. He walked around and talked to people, which no one can can remember him doing for five years, and changed the superintendent of police. Bhadrak was one of the worst incidents of communal tension in the state since 2014, and worryingly for the BJD, its Bhadrak MP Arjun Sethi has accused local MLA Jugal Patnaik of having a role in it. Partymen say Patnaik may face action.
On Friday, Naveen overhauled the party’s youth and students’ wing, bringing in fresh faces who can deliver in 2019. Partymen also say that after the BJP National Executive is over, the BJD would hold a mammoth meeting to showcase its own strength. The BJD internal rumblings have been loudest in Delhi, with rumours of five-six MPs planning to leave the party for the BJP. In the past one month, Naveen has been to Delhi twice, and has held a meeting with party MPs. For fear of triggering a division in the party, the CM has also put off a longpromised Cabinet reshuffle.
The most embarrassing episode has been the Twitter duel between two prominent BJD MPs Baijayant Panda and Tathagat Satpathy, with the latter alleging that the BJP was trying to break the BJD with the help of a party parliamentarian. While Satpathy didn’t name Panda, the latter quickly reacted, saying Satpathy “spoke with expertise, having once been suspended from BJD and joined another party”. Panda’s frequent praise for the Modi government has long stirred speculation about his political leanings.
A day after the Twitter spat, a long op-ed by Panda appeared in Odia daily Samaj, where he talked about fears that bureaucrats controlled the party and alleged that many key positions in the BJD had gone to opportunists.
While Panda could not be contacted, Satpathy told The Sunday Express Panda was “an honourable party colleague” and that he would not comment on him.
It was to bring the central unit in control that Naveen was said to be considering sending Gita Mehta, an acclaimed writer, to the Rajya Sabha. Naveen has denied this officially. Mehta is very protective of Naveen, and a party leader claims it was her idea that the CM shed his aura of inaccessibility and click selfies with young people. However, not many are sure whether she wants more than being a backroom adviser and if she is ready for the hurly-burly of politics or to give up her life in New York and London to stick around.
Bishnu Das, who was told to vacate the Rajya Sabha seat last month as Naveen said he was needed in the state, however, says Mehta would have been the best choice for the Upper House.
BJD, BJP: ADDING UP NUMBERS
The BJD’s fears of losing leaders are not unfounded, with BJP sources confirming that poaching almost the entire grassroots organisation of other parties, including the Congress, is on its table. The BJP had practised this with some success in Uttar Pradesh, and with most of the turncoats accommodated with seats and ranks there, this holds promise for many rebels.
The strategy may come in particularly handy in the coastal belt between Aska in Ganjam district and Baliapal in Balasore district (70 Assembly seats in all) where the BJP has yet to gain any foothold.
However, the problem of managing leaders could hit the BJP too. Though Pradhan is fashioning himself as the alternative to Naveen, Union minister Jual Oram said on Friday that the party has at least five-six CM candidates, hinting he too was in the race.
An increasingly confident Pradhan asserts that the panchayat polls show that the BJP is on course for 2019. In the polls, the BJP won 33 per cent of the votes (67 lakh) and the BJD 40 per cent (83 lakh). BJP leaders say they need 42 per cent of the popular votes for a majority. Pradhan rolls off other numbers: “If you look at the panchayat polls, the BJP was leading in 45 Assembly seats and seven of the 21 Lok Sabha seats. The BJD’s lead was only in 92 Assembly seats. In places where we could not get people to hold our flags or to pitch the tents, we have won 92,000 votes. The BJP candidates won 27,000 votes in the chief minister’s constituency of Hinjili.”
BJP national secretary Suresh Pujari adds, “What you saw in the panchayat polls was a trailer. The movie will be in 2019.”
BJD spokesperson Pratap Deb, who calls the BJP’s “rise” a “media creation”, interprets the same numbers differently. “Of the 314 blocks in the state, the BJD won 218 while the Congress won 45. The BJP was at third place with 29. So where is the so-called resurgence?”
He adds that in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, block chairpersons and sarpanchs would matter more than zila parishad members. In the three-tier panchayats, the zila parishads are at the top, while blocks (also called panchayat samitis) come next. followed by sarpanchs at the panchayat level.
BJD MP Satpathy says the BJP can keep “daydreaming”. “Unlike demonetisation when high-value currency notes were demonetised, daydreaming is still valid. Naveen Patnaik can completely reinvent himself before 2019 and shock you all,” he says.