The Bharatiya Janata Party’s decision to hold its two-day national executive in Bhubaneswar, starting Saturday, seems to have been made keeping in mind the saffron party’s desire to make inroads into Odisha, which has been ruled for the past 17 years by the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal.
Since 2014, almost all ministers of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre have visited Odisha to attend official meetings or inaugurate central government schemes. Narendra Modi has himself visited the state four times since he took over as prime minister. These repeated visits have ensured that the political narrative in the local media has revolved only around the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal, pushing the Congress – the state’s second-largest political force – out of the picture.
The national executive, which will be attended by the top BJP leadership, including Modi and party president Amit Shah comes a few weeks after the BJP’s impressive performance in the state’s rural polls held in February. In these elections, the BJP not only edged past the Congress, increasing its tally of zilla parishad seats from 36 in 2012 to 297, it jolted the Biju Janata Dal from its perception of invincibility.
The saffron party’s push into Odisha has led to many political pundits writing off Chief Minister Patnaik, predicting that the BJP will crush the Biju Janata Dal in the 2019 Assembly polls, which will be held along with the general elections. Some others have predicted a vertical split in the ruling party much before the elections.
However, while it is true that the Biju Janata Dal can be accused of complacency, the ground reality may not be as bad as is being projected by some political observers.
The BJP’s aggressiveness in Odisha has been evident since its president Amit Shah visited the state to address a rally in Bhubaneswar in January 2015, weeks after his party stormed to power in neighbouring Jharkhand. “We will overthrow the corrupt BJD government in the 2019 elections,” Shah thundered at the rally.
After the rally, he interacted with party cadres and asked the state leadership to enrol 40 lakh new members to the BJP’s existing six lakh members in the state, to create a strong organisational base that will be able to take on the Biju Janata Dal.
Since then, the BJP has deployed a well-oiled strategy in Odisha, as part of its “Look East” policy, with the aim to revive its fortunes in the state. The saffron party shared power with the Biju Janata Dal for nine years till Patnaik snapped ties just before the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections following anti-Christian riots in the state, which were triggered by the murder of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda in Kandhamal district.
Alongside the BJP’s efforts to make inroads into Odisha, its central leaders have always kept the door open for a possible alliance with the Biju Janata Dal, an acknowledgement of Patnaik’s continuing importance in the state. Local BJP leaders were often upset when visiting Union ministers rushed to meet Patnaik instead of spending time with party cadres.
The Central Bureau of Investigation’s shoddy enquiry into the state’s multi-crore chit fund scam, in which many Biju Janata Dal MLAs and ministers are alleged to be involved, and the ruling party’s support to the BJP in Parliament on several vital issues, also points to the bonhomie between the two parties.
Modi at a rally in Odisha last year. (Photo credit: narendramodi.in).
However, that bonhomie seems to have ended with the BJP’s unexpected performance in the rural elections, which came as a pleasant surprise to many leaders of the national party. “Finally Modi magic has started working in Odisha,” said a party leader in Odisha. “We are confident of defeating the BJD on our own in 2019.”
Many BJP leaders in Odisha are still smarting at the humiliation that Patnaik caused them when he abruptly ended the coalition with the saffron party in 2009. After tasting blood in the rural elections, these leaders are seeking revenge. It was thanks to Patnaik that the BJP was reduced to just six Assembly seats in 2009 from 38 in 2000 – the year the Biju Janata Dal and BJP joined hands to defeat the Congress that was ruling the state. Similarly, in 2014, despite the Modi wave across India, the BJP only managed to increase its tally of Assembly seats in Odisha to 10.
However, whatever the spin, the BJP’s journey into Odisha in 2019 is not likely to be as smooth as many political pundits are making it out to be.
For one, the Biju Janata Dal still has several advantages over the national party when it comes to numbers and a grassroots base. In the rural polls, the BJD was comfortably at the top, winning 473 seats of the total 846 zilla parishad seats – more than 50%. The BJP was a distant second at 297.
Second, while highlighting the BJP’s success in the zilla parishad polls, the media mostly missed the fact that Biju Janata Dal-backed candidates were elected to the post of block chairman in 220 out of 307 blocks where elections were held. Congress-backed candidates were elected in 42 blocks while the BJP finished third with only 28 blocks.
Finally, most of the BJP’s zilla parishad seats came from western and northern Odisha, where it had a traditional support base that had eroded over the years. The national party, however, could not make a visible dent in the Biju Janata Dal’s base in coastal and southern Odisha, which contribute the largest number of Assembly seats in the state.
War of perception
After the rural polls, however, the BJP stepped up its war of perception, projecting itself as a winning party that can be a viable alternative to the Biju Janatd Dal. The speculative reports about Naveen Patnaik’s alleged ill-health, his US-based sister Geeta Mehta entering politics and taking charge of party in the event of the chief minister’s hospitalisation, and reports of Biju Janata Dal leaders allegedly deserting the party to join the BJP are all part of this war of perception. The message being sent across is that Patnaik, that old warhorse, is not in a position to run his party and the government.
Naveen Patnaik, who dismissed speculation of his ill-health as well as reports of his sister joining politics, has sensed the belligerent mood in the saffron camp and has started preparing to effectively counter the attack. A series of tweets by Biju Janata Dal MP Tathagata Satpathy on March 27, in which he alleged that the BJP was working to split the party in Parliament and the state Assembly may be part of a counter-strategy to pre-empt any such move by the saffron party.
Chief Minister Patnaik has also held a meeting of party leaders to review the party’s poor performance in western Odisha and in some northern areas, and has asked them to go back to the grassroots to “work for the cause of the people and regain their confidence”.
For a politician who avoided public contact, liked his isolation and believed in the power of silence, Patnaik is now moving out to click selfies with common people. The chief minister, who refrained from visiting conflict areas like Kalinga Nagar – where 13 persons protesting against their displacement by a proposed steel hub were killed in police firing in 2006 – also went to riot-affected Bhadrak town on April 12 tomeet with communities, appeal for peace and announce rehabilitation packages for victims.
In the long run, a party cannot sustain itself only through a war of perception. It is work at the grassroots that eventually gives electoral dividends. Two years is a long time in politics, and in Odisha, the smarter party will ultimately emerge victorious. Till then, it may be foolish to write off Patnaik, who is known to keep his cards close to his chest and play them well.