Among the many things that Narendra Modi spoke about during his February 11 Vijay Sankalp Samavesh rally in Bhubaneswar, what stood out was his attack on Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik using late CM Biju Patnaik’s name. Though few expected Modi to attack Naveen considering the latter’s possible role in government formation in Delhi, the Gujarat CM in his characteristic way told the one lakh-plus crowd that Biju babu (as the late CM is reverentially addressed in Orissa) would have been very pained to see an underdeveloped Orissa.
“Do you agree Orissa is poor? In Orissa, whenever a youth turns 18, he leaves his district or block to search for work outside the state. Why is drinking water still not available in the CM’s own district of Ganjam? Biju babu’s soul, wherever it may be, would be very hurt seeing a ruined Orissa,” said Modi, much to the discomfiture of BJD leaders.
The BJD reacted the next day when its leader Damodar Rout accused Gujarat and Maharashtra leaders of vetoing Biju’s name in 1962 when former PM Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to make the maverick Orissa leader the defence minister.
The war of words may have quietened, but many in Orissa think it was smart of Modi to appropriate the Biju legacy ahead of elections. Though Naveen has shown his mettle winning three assembly polls consecutively, very few would disagree that Biju’s name still has a special pull in the heart of Oriyas. Though he was electorally less successful than his son (seven years as CM compared to Naveen’s 14), Biju was more popular when out of power than when he was CM.
Many in the BJP think Modi’s use of the name would pull in a lot of old Biju-faithfuls to the party as well as old voters who are angry with Naveen but whose love for Biju Patnaik is intact. However, others in his party, and in the BJD, think a father’s legacy, good or bad, always belongs to his son. Former union minister Dilip Ray and former minister Bijoy Mohapatra, both BJP men who shared the dais with Modi, were close to Biju Patnaik. It was Ray who looked after Patnaik senior in New Delhi during his last days. Yet neither Ray nor Mohapatra were ever considered the inheritors of Biju’s legacy.
And, despite his attack on Naveen, Modi may have left room for a post-poll compromise open. He was under pressure from his partymen to attack the BJD, which he did, but he didn’t raise the mining scam, which the Justice Shah commission said was a result of the failure of law and order in mine-bearing areas. Neither did he say anything of the chit fund scam which has affected lakhs of people in the last one-and-a-half years. Invoking Biju’s name may have been just a half-hearted attempt to tilt at windmills.
Debabrata is a special correspondent based in Bhubaneswar.