He is the political leader who was lovingly called ‘Pappu’ —a nickname carried over from his Doon School days. His rivals thought he deserved worse: for being parachuted into politics courtesy dynasty at the age of 51, for being far-removed from his backward state and even its language, for being a high-flyer more at home in New York parties, for being aloof and uncommunicative.
But for 19 years, none of this has stuck to Patnaik. In the Assembly polls that kicked off along with Lok Sabha on April 11, he is seeking his fifth term — which would make him one of India’s longest-serving chief ministers. He won in 2014 with a 43.14 per cent vote share, 117 of the 147 Assembly and 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats. At the age of 72, the BJD supremo is showing he can reinvent — clicking selfies, taking out his first bus yatra, and releasing his first exercise video. Unlike other regional leaders, he is also in the happy position of not having to choose sides before the May 23 LS results, having stuck to his 10-year-long principle of “equidistance from the Congress and BJP”.
While BJD will find it hard to repeat its 2014 sweep, the party is hoping to end up ahead in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections with BJP hobbled by lack of an organisation at many places and Congress losing ground. BJP for its part is counting on Modi, and Cong that its big win in Chhattisgarh will rub off in neighbouring areas
However, with the BJP having set its sights on Odisha, this election is Patnaik’s toughest. Over the past few years, the BJP has steadily gained ground in the state, especially in the urban areas and among the young, while many colleagues of Patnaik have left, making the Biju Janata Dal a party almost entirely about him. Though there is lingering affection for the CM, will that be enough for Patnaik, now known by a more loving moniker, “Nabeen babu”?
Patnaik, the CM
A delicious aroma of spices frying in mustard oil surrounds Gita Dasu, 40, who is sitting in front of a chulha in Barimal village in Kendrapara constituency in coastal Odisha.
Just outside her village, a Self Help Group (SHG) of women is headed for a nearby bank to rectify an error in its account. As a result, they say, they have not been able to get the Rs 15,000 promised by the state for SHGs. “The banks cite something or the other to block our money,” says one. However, the anganwadi teacher who is taking them to the bank, says that while they are upset, they can’t forget what Patnaik has done for them — “taken many of us out of the kitchen”.
Women form the most committed supporters of Patnaik, a backing powered by Odisha’s Mission Shakti women SHG network. They have also taken note of Patnaik’s promise to reserve 33 per cent Lok Sabha tickets for women. The BJD has two sitting women MPs and 11 sitting MLAs currently.
Asked about the polls, Dasu says, “We don’t have much, but Naveen babu has cared for us, if not in a big way.”
She is more vocal about the BJP, which is getting some traction in Kendrapara. “Modi ne humko barbaad kar diya (Modi destroyed us)… Whatever money we had, we had to burn it,” Dasu says, claiming that they couldn’t exchange notes during demonetisation.
Patnaik’s popularity among women extends to urban areas. Says Mousami Mohanty of Puri town, “He is one of the few leaders who does things for women. After his announcement, (Trinamool chief) Mamata Banerjee also fielded more women in West Bengal.”
The Patnaik government has schemes to distribute sanitary napkins, provide specialist services in urban clinics to women, and to give financial support to pregnant women and lactating mothers. The BJD manifesto promises that under the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana, women would be able to get treatment of up to Rs 10 lakh, twice the amount for men.
The BJP is hoping to cut some of that base with Ujjwala, with its most prominent Odisha leader, Dharmendra Pradhan, the face of the scheme to provide LPG connections to BPL women, as Petroleum Minister. A BJD MP from western Odisha concedes, “Ujjwala has made a dent in our base among women.”
Other popular BJD schemes include a health scheme for farmers and public transport facilities for rural areas. In December last year, it launched KALIA, for 92 per cent of the state’s farmers in a cash-transfer scheme; PM-KISAN followed two months later.
Partly through careful selection of bureaucrats, Patnaik has also established a reputation as an able administrator. Tucked away in Odisha’s Mahendragiri hill range near the Andhra Pradesh border is Baraghara village, falling under the Mohana Assembly constituency of Berhampur Lok Sabha seat. One of Odisha’s most remote settlements, the tribal village was the worst-affected in Cyclone Titli, with 15 people buried alive in a landslide.
“Within 15 days, Naveen cleared away 9 km of treacherous hill roads,” says Krushna Bhuyan, who lost his wife and two children. “We received compensation within a month. Naveen personally came down and instructed the local administration.”
However, Bhuyan asks, how much can Patnaik alone do. “Our MLA did not work to provide basic services like drinking water.” The BJD has now replaced its sitting MLA Basanti Mallick, who won in 2014 by a mere 115 votes.
Addressing a rally last week in southern Odisha’s Ganjam district, Patnaik highlighted the natural calamities faced by the state. “(Cyclones like) Phailin, Hudhud, Titli happened, they did not come… Now that there is an election, they have reached here. The BJP’s big leaders are shedding crocodile tears.”
Patnaik, the politician
So far, the 72-year-old has been ahead of the BJP at every political step. With the BJP gaining ground in western Odisha, he announced he would be contesting from a second Assembly seat, Bijepur, in the region, apart from his pocket borough Hinjili in south coastal Odisha. This will be the first time Patnaik will contest from two seats.
Patnaik had earlier shown his intent to give the BJP a fight in Bijepur after sitting Congress MLA Subal Sahu died in August 2017. Fielding his wife Rita Sahu for the February 2018 bypolls, the BJD had deployed all its ministers and MPs to ensure her win. When, during the campaign, a chappal was hurled at Patnaik, the CM had dropped in at Agalpur village at night, unscheduled, surprising even his aides. Rita Sahu had won by 41,000 votes, a win helped to a large extent by that appearance.
On April 3, on his first bus yatra, Patnaik crisscrossed Berhampur Lok Sabha constituency, that went to polls on April 11. Berhampur is located close to his former Lok Sabha seat, Aska, and his Assembly turf, Hinjili.
With rumours of his ill-health now circulating for three years, the CM’s office released a video of him exercising days before the April 11 polling. To political watchers, the resemblance to a video of Modi released last year was stark.
Some BJD leaders say these rumours were started sometime before the 2017 local body elections. “These generated interest because the CM is very popular but has no clear plan of succession,” one party leader says.
In an interview to NDTV, Patnaik blamed former party leader Baijayant Jay Panda, who denied the allegations.
But the video also ended up fuelling fresh chatter on future leadership of the party. A BJD MP admits there is no thinking on the matter. “Naveen doesn’t care about the future. He was never groomed for a political role by his father Biju Patnaik. He may follow the same path.”
Where the BJD has an edge over the others, including the BJP, is its network. Built since 1997, when the BJD was formed months after Biju Patnaik’s demise, it has strengthened during the party’s years in power.
However, lately, there have been cracks. Jay Panda, who quit the BJD in May citing humiliation, recently joined the
BJP. A BJD leader points out that Panda, once a close advisor of Patnaik, was the latest in a line of senior leaders to have left. “Patnaik has systematically thrown out stalwarts at the first sign of dissent. From his political mentor Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, to Dilip Ray and Bijoy Mohapatra, Naveen has sidelined everyone… And they have all faded into obsolescence.”
Many partymen accuse Patnaik of diluting the BJD ideology by compromising with the BJP. The BJD had surprised everyone by backing the Modi government’s amendments to the land acquisition Bill, which had to be eventually put in cold storage due to opposition across parties. The BJD was also one of the few non-NDA parties to support demonetisation.
“By doing so, the party leadership blurred the lines between the BJP and BJD, which has made a section of the electorate consider the BJP,” says a political observer.
The cooperation with the NDA government is also attributed as the reason for the BJD escaping a chit fund scam taint, though with a dent to Patnaik’s clean image.
Tathagata Satpathy, a BJD MP in the outgoing Lok Sabha who has stayed out of elections saying he wants to quit politics, says, “The BJD’s dilly-dallying on national policies seems to have adversely affected the party, however small in quantum.”
The influence of officials, who often enjoy more powers in the state than BJD leaders, is also the cause of rancour in party ranks — also because of the lack of a second rung in the party. Tellingly, the BJD has fielded former bureaucrats from three Lok Sabha seats, with the sitting MPs among the 16 dropped by the BJD.
Jay Panda claims the BJD is on the verge of “disintegration”, and that it were BJP leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani who facilitated its rise. “After it broke the alliance with the BJP, it was the TINA (there is no alternative) factor that helped the party. Now, for the first time in 20 years, there is an alternative. So from the dictatorial BJD, people are leaving.”
BJP, the challenger
For the BJP, it has been a long and hard climb in Odisha. In what is a faintly remembered fact now, it shared an 11-year-old alliance with the BJD. When they split in 2009 following the Kandhamal riots, the BJP had 32 MLAs. In the outgoing Assembly, it had 10.
In its bid for fresh inroads in the state, the BJP first chose western Odisha, partly because it borders Chhattisgarh (where the BJP held power for 15 years till recently) and partly because it is an area considered neglected by Bhubaneswar. Besides, influential royal families in the area are with the BJP.
Covering largely the Lok Sabha seats of Sambalpur, Bargarh, Kalahandi, Balangir, Sundergarh and Nabarangpur, and more than 40 Assembly seats, western Odisha has a culture distinct from coastal Odisha.
The BJP started from the ground, building committees in every booth, mandal, village, block and district, and holding public programmes. Arun Singh, who has been in Odisha for six years as the BJP general secretary in-charge, led a drive to enrol 35 lakh new members, and is behind the aggressive campaign against the BJD around the tagline ‘Ethara sarkaar badaliba darkar (This time the government has to change)’. The state unit’s attempts were handsomely supported by central leaders, with Union ministers and BJP chief Amit Shah frequently visiting the state.
In the 2017 panchayat elections, the BJP’s tally in Odisha’s 853 zila parishads went up from 36 in 2012 to 297. Its gain was not just from the Congress, whose tally halved from 128 to 60, but also the BJD, which came down to 460 from 651.
Admits three-term BJD MP Pinaki Mishra, who is being given a tough challenge in Puri by the BJP’s Sambit Patra, “A lot has changed since 2014… There has been a lot of hype and hoopla, no shortage of money and materials.” But, he adds, Patnaik’s Bijepur seat decision has sent a message that he is willing to fight head-on.
Many believe the BJP will also pay for bungling its candidate list. One of the consequences has been the resignation of Subhash Chauhan, after he was denied a ticket from Bargarh. Within 24 hours, the BJD gave him charge of three seats in western Odisha.
Claiming many such “goof-ups”, Prasanna Mishra, a businessman from Haldipali in the constituency and a party supporter, says, “Chouhan had made the BJP a force here… Whatever wave was there, has subsided.”
Mishra cites this to assert that the BJP “does not even have candidates”. “Around 30 of its candidates have been taken from the BJD.”
Arun Singh disagrees, saying that having rebuilt the organisation, the entry of these leaders has given the BJP what it lacked — names. “Now the most prominent faces of coastal Odisha — Jay Panda, Damodar Raut and Bijoy Mahapatra — are with us.”
Modi, a factor
More than just a prestige battle, winning Odisha is crucial to the BJP’s 2019 plans. Having saturated its growth in the Hindi heartland, the party needs to pick up seats in new grounds. Odisha is ripe, having given the BJP just 1 seat out of 21 in 2014.
The party’s biggest ammunition appears to be the Prime Minister. People vouch for Narendra Modi’s “decisive and able” leadership, for what “he has done to Pakistan” after “it attacked Indian soldiers in Pulwama”, coupled with a call for “paribartan (change)”.
“There is anti-incumbency, craze for Modi and a call for change. This could make things very tough for Naveen babu, especially in the voting for the Lok Sabha,” says Sanjeev Kumar Daitapati, a priest at Puri’s Jagannath Temple.
A few minutes ago, Sambit Patra had come calling to Daitapati’s textile shop right opposite to seek blessings from his father, Guruji Jagannath Kumar Daitapadi. Daitapadi Senior, who used to be a Congress supporter, agrees with his son. Sitting under a photo of himself with Mamata Banerjee, he says, “People want change. We have been voting for the BJD for more than 20 years.”
In Patnaik’s own Hinjili constituency near Behrampur town, giant posters of Dharmendra Pradhan hang around — in what would have been unthinkable till recently on the CM’s turf. In 2014, Patnaik had won for the fourth time from here, and locals say that victory margin, of roughly 75,000 votes, will come down.
There is visible discontent over lack of jobs. In the roughly 3,500 households in Saru village, almost every third house is padlocked, its residents working in Mumbai. “Educated people can’t find jobs in Hinjili’s vicinity,” says a tea shop owner, whose brother works in a switch-making factory near Mumbai. “If I did not have polio, I would have also left.”
“Nabina (a colloqial term for Naveen) is a decent person, but he cannot do everything. And the people he has chosen are inefficient sycophants,” says another local.
For example, they cite the ticket to 68-year-old Pramila Bisoyi, a leading member of the SHG network, from the Aska Lok Sabha seat. “Bisoyi may have done wonderful work in Mission Shakti, but a Class 3 educated, almost infirm old woman will not be an effective MP,” says a 35-year-old shopkeeper.
As one moves from semi-rural to urbanised parts of the state, the anti-incumbency against the BJD is stronger, especially in the five coastal Lok Sabha seats (Puri, Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Kendrapara and Balasore) and corresponding Assembly seats.
Still, many doubt if the BJP has the last-mile ability to convert that into votes, especially for the Assembly. Several BJD MLAs and MPs repeat that the party has the ability to “easily pull 40-plus percentage of votes in its favour” on account of its ground network alone.
Concedes a local BJP worker, “We do not have bahubali MLAs like the BJD’s Maheshwar Mohanty (Puri), Pradeep Maharathy (Pipili), Arun Sahu (Nayagarh), who can mobilise BJD voters in every village and every street of their constituencies.”
Congress, the straggler
Odisha has a history of anti-Congress voting and is one of the few states where the Swatantra Party, founded by C Rajagopalachari on the principles of classical liberalism and free enterprise, came to power. Biju Patnaik was one of the tallest leaders of the JP Movement and later helped V P Singh become PM.
Out of power since Hemananda Biswal was CM for a few months in 2000, the Congress has still all along been the second party in Odisha — its vote share in 2014 far ahead of the BJP’s.
But in the last five years, the decline of the Congress has accelerated, as reflected in the 2017 local body elections. In 2018, its candidate lost his deposit in the prestige Bijepur bypoll.Lately, Patnaik has gone about mopping up the few remaining Congress performers in Odisha — Chandrasekhar Sahu got the BJD ticket from Berhampur Lok Sabha constituency, while Naba Das got an MLA nomination from Jharsuguda.
While the Congress victory in Chhattisgarh followed by its government’s farm loan waiver and high paddy MSP there kicked the party into animation in western Odisha, the advantage seems lost. Since the tickets for 2019 were announced, the party has been busy quelling factional fights. Many leaders have returned tickets, citing these were given “too late”. Others have complained of the “highhandedness” of state Congress chief Niranjan Patnaik and his son Nabajyoti Patnaik.
The Congress decline is most visible in urban settlements, though it may still hold on in villages. Says Congress Paradip MLA candidate Bappi Sarkhel, “I agree the Congress has to work more. We will have to spread the word on the party’s pro-poor programmes and Rahul Gandhi’s NYAY scheme.”
A senior Congress leader, who is contesting the polls from Cuttack, is confident the gap is large enough for the BJP to remain behind it. “The BJP was in third place in many Assembly contests in 2014. The Congress came second based on a vote bank that remains largely stable. Even if the BJP doubles its vote share, presumably taking votes from the BJD, either the Congress wins with a smaller rise in vote share or the BJD hangs on by its fingernails.”
Satpathy interprets this entirely differently, to the BJP’s advantage and the BJD’s loss. “The Congress has weakened further, the BJD has broken its ranks. Had there been a third force, anti-BJD votes would have got divided.”