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THE ‘LOTUS EATER’ has the last laugh

When Naveen Patnaik dropped a bombshell on BJP Rajya Sabha MP and L K Advani’s emissary Chandan Mitra on the evening of March 7 by offering the saffron party....

When Naveen Patnaik dropped a bombshell on BJP Rajya Sabha MP and L K Advani’s emissary Chandan Mitra on the evening of March 7 by offering the saffron party just 31 Assembly and five Lok Sabha seats in Orissa,no one could imagine that the suave politician could drop his ally of 11 years with such ease.

Naveen did not lose his composure for a minute while telling the journalist-turned-MP that the alliance with BJP is over. BJP leaders who thought Naveen to be their “most dependable ally” changed their tunes overnight calling him “serial killer” and “betrayer” as the party withdrew its support from his government in Orissa. The allusion was to Naveen’s axing of his rivals like Bijoy Mohapatra and Dilip Ray from the party in bloodless coups.

So,has Naveen matured politically so much that his friends and foes can’t decipher his actions? The jury may still be out on that but despite the BJP’s harsh words,there is grudging admiration for the BJD chieftain,who is now being seen as a smarter politician compared to the illustrious ones in BJP.

“He has definitely matured politically. He is coming into his own. He takes his own decisions,” says BJD minister and his Doon school friend Anang Uday Singhdeo. Admits a BJP leader: “He kept us waiting for several weeks and then dumped us. We never had a clue.”

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As Orissa and the rest of the country is still busy figuring the mind of the writer-turned-politician,those who have some sense of his mind say last year’s Kandhamal riots were the breaking point between the BJD and BJP.

“Naveen never realised that the killing of Laxmanananda Saraswati would lead to riots in Kandhamal. He never thought that the killings would bring so much national and international condemnation for him,” says a senior BJD leader.

BJD sources say the turning point came when Naveen’s secular credentials were doubted by his writer-sister Gita Mehta,his businessman brother Prem Patnaik,and Prem’s Christian wife. “While the national media accused him of being hand-in-glove with the rioters of Kandhamal,the reaction from family members seems to have done the trick as essentially Naveen is a secular person. He also studied in a Catholic school,” says senior political commentator Rabi Das.

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Naveen was also deeply disturbed and unhappy over personal attacks launched against him by the leaders of frontline organisations of the Sangh Parivar. While VHP international secretary general Pravin Togadia hauled him for heading a “government of eunuchs”,a gaggle of saints from the VHP called him names for his government’s failure in nabbing the killers of Laxmanananda Saraswati.

So Naveen who was more or less happy with the BJP decided to hit back as he campaigned for BJD in Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation polls in December 2008,personally going to all the 52 wards. The BJD swept the polls,leaving the BJP a miserable third. The second shock to the BJP came when he campaigned for the BJD in the Cuttack Municipal Corporation and Baripada Municipality polls in February 2009 like he did in Bhubaneswar. The results were a stunner as the BJD demolished the BJP fortress in Cuttack while in Baripada the party won half the wards.

Naveen seemed to have made up his mind about ending the alliance when BJP leader and Higher Education Minister Sameer Dey accused him of using black money to win the Cuttack civic polls. Naveen forced Dey to resign and thereafter the alliance seemed to be on the rocks as he kept on delaying the discussions on seat-sharing,even rebuffing Mitra several times.

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BJD leaders say he may be the quietest politician around — he hardly raises his voice — but possesses a mind that is at ease with the intrigue of Orissa politics. “He listens to everyone but takes his own decisions,” says Priyadarshi Mishra,a budding BJD leader from Bhubaneswar. He still can’t speak Oriya fluently,but has done well to keep his flock of leaders under check. “His biggest strength is his inscrutability as he has built a wall between himself and the people around him. Neither he allows the public to come close to him nor does he allow the media to scrutinise him. Anyone who claims to know his mind too well is either a liar or naïve,” says a BJD leader.

Also,some BJD leaders say Naveen knows when to hit back and how. “He neither forgives,nor forgets,” says a party leader.

Despite all that he remains the most popular politician in Orissa even as the state continues to be among the poorest in India. Employment generation has slackened under his rule despite his signing a plethora of MoUs with multinational companies. But people consider him a clean politician,who is striving to end corruption in the Government.

It is his dumping of the BJP that is likely to define his course in Orissa’s political history. Despite all its drawbacks,the BJP has around 20 per cent votebase in the state. “Without us Naveen can never win. Besides,the win-rate in the civic polls is a deceptive matric. Remember in the last elections,several candidates of the alliance won by a few hundred votes. In a three-way contest,we may lose badly but the Congress would be the ultimate gainer,” says Dharmendra Pradhan,BJP’s national secretary.

BJD’s Singhdeo said splitting with the BJP is a ‘bold political gamble’. But BJP leaders say Naveen could be repeating the mistakes his father Biju Patnaik committed in the 1995 polls when he dumped the Left and lost badly. “Like his father he seems to be overconfident,” says Jatin Mohanty,a BJP leader.

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Political observers say Naveen may still win the Assembly polls by cutting a deal with the Congress in Delhi and winning over people from the BJP. But with the BJP planning to mount an aggressive campaign with Narendra Modi spearheading the attack,it is going to be the battle of his lifetime for Naveen.

First published on: 10-03-2009 at 11:13:04 pm
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