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Naveen Patnaik's master stroke in Orissa

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: March 11, 2009 10:06 IST
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Enemies make you stronger, allies make you weaker' -- Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate L K Advani must have read this front-page quotation today in a daily in New Delhi.

On March 5, Biju Janata Dal chief and Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik broke ties with Advani-led National Democratic Alliance and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Nobody from the NDA or the BJP had anticipated this ex-parte divorce. In one stroke, NDA has lost probably around 8 to 10 seats from its coffers.

On March 11, the Naveen Patnaik-led government faces a trust vote in the state assembly. If at all the Congress abstains to save the BJD government, it will be obvious that Patnaik's move is well-designed and well thought out.

However, the euphoria of the Left over Patnaik leaving BJP's side is laughable because Patnaik can never be Left-oriented and does not want Left politics in the state.

His development plans are fiercely opposed by politburo member Sitaram Yechury's party (Communist Party of India-Marxist) in Paradip where a 12 million ton steel plant has been allotted to POSCO.

The image of Yechury's handshake with Patnaik on primetime television and on newspaper front pages is quite phoney considering that in Orissa the CPI-M has 0.77% of votes while the outsmarted BJP has around 18% vote share.

In Orissa, the Congress is a formidable force but the BJD and BJP combination had been countering it successfully. Now, the BJD thinks it is in a position to take on the Congress by itself. Patnaik's jolt to NDA is a huge psychological victory for the United Progressive Alliance, by default or by design.

Patnaik, whose party is the result of anti-Congress politics, is finding many supporters even in the enemy camp.

The level of political judgment of the BJP with respect to one of its most-dependable and steady allies was so pathetic that on the day the Orissa chief minister snapped the 11-year-old tie-up, BJP leader K V Singhdeo had published a column in RSS mouthpiece Organiser, hailing the alliance as 'pride of Orissa and envy for Opposition'.

Instead, BJP leaders focused more on Maharashtra where Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray was slipping away towards Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party. With great difficulty, party managers managed to bring him back to the table.

Prasanna Acharya, BJD leader from Sambalpur, Orissa, defends Patnaik and his party. He tells, "Nothing is static in politics. BJP should know that things are always fluid in politics."

Swapan Dasgupta, political thinker and a good friend of Patnaik, says, "Atmospherics between the two parties were soured. The BJP did not take into account ground realties."

Last month, BJD won handsomely in all the urban local elections -- winning two-third majority while BJP candidates, at most places, stood third. Equipped with the victory in the local elections, the BJD went for the kill.

It is well-known that Patnaik, when he joined state politics in 2000, knew French better than Oriya. The son of legendary Oriya leader Biju Patnaik, Naveen was the "doon school" type high flier. The politically-stunning part of the entire story is Naveen Patnaik himself.

Till he was 50-years-old, he was a jet-setting Indian interested in luxurious life, culture, literature and environment. He wrote three books -- one of which was edited by none other than Jacqueline Onassis. He has written a book on the people of Bikaner and even on healing plants of India.

In New Delhi, his nickname was 'pappu', but the gentle-looking man had a distinct taste in food, travel and friendships. He was a regular foodie seen at posh joints like Taipan at Oberoi Hotel. Politically, he has grown so amazingly fast that today he is on steady ground to give a hard punch to the BJP.

Biju Patnaik's death in 1997 changed Naveen's life. He rewrote his own life story. He became chief minister in the year 2000 and has since ruled the state with moderate success in development. He has impressively succeeded in expanding his political hold over Orissa, its people and its future.

In 2002, a journalist friend of Naveen was so surprised to see his transformation that in his Sunday column he wrote, 'He has a reputation for clinically detached ruthlessness. No sooner do the dissidents start their secret meetings than he promptly expels them from the party."

Naveen runs his government with help of Pyarimohan Mohapatra (BJD's chief strategist and a former bureaucrat). Through Mohapatra, he grips the bureaucracy firmly.

He has superbly kept his image clean and simple. If he wants to give lavish parties he uses parliamentarian Jay and his wife Jaggi Panda's luxurious home in Bhubaneswar. Patnaik surely played a masterstroke to brighten up his own image of being secular by kicking the BJP out. His decision is not irrational. It is purposeful.

One at a national level, as the election result is likely to be uncertain and dicey. Any political leader with a secular image will have a better chance of becoming the leader of Third Front to form the government in New Delhi if Congress and BJP fail to make it to the mark. It is obvious that Patnaik has also coyly staked his claim by dumping the NDA at the crucial juncture.

Already Pawar, Mulayam Singh Yadav (Samajwadi Party) and Mayawati (Bahujan Samaj Party) have staked claim to what is called the 'Deve Gowda-Gujral phenomenon' where irrespective of one's party strength h or she could dream of becoming prime minister.

Patnaik is also facing the state assembly election. It is known that BJP's few ministers are facing graft charges while voters are swearing by Patnaik's clean image. In the last nine years of Patnaik's rule not only has the BJD expanded but it is undeniably the number one political party of Orissa. After winning the local election last month, it made sense for Naveen to cut BJP, a loser party, to size.

Pyarimohan Mohapatra, who is the second most powerful leader of the BJD after Patnaik, hinted in a television show while explaining the reasons behind their departure from NDA, "In the last five years, the BJP has not been able to put its house in order. It is losing popular support. Secondly, the BJP has also started experimenting in Orissa."

However, importantly, under no circumstances will Patnaik say that he left the NDA 'for sake of secularism'. Even Mohapatra did not elaborate his claim on the television show that BJP's communal agenda was the reason behind their parting.

His party's strategy will be to harp on the 'failure of seat-sharing adjustments with the BJP' because in a state, which has the largest majority of Hindu population in the country, "secularism" is not an issue in the conventional sense.

In India, popular debates on Hindu-Muslim equations are touching the issue of secularism but in Orissa among Hindus, secular or communal, the predominant emotion is against conversion -- any type of conversion.

Communal riots in Kandhamal district surely threatened secular values of a cultured Oriya society but in the Western Orissa where the Christian community is stronger saffron forces are equally dominant.

So, while talking to during the day, Patnaik's three senior colleagues refused to drag the issue of Kandhamal riots.

Panda said, "Kandhamal is not an issue. Our decision to leave NDA has nothing to do with it."

Asked whether the BJD was being opportunistic by choosing to leave the NDA at such a crucial time, Panda defended his party and said, "BJP kept on dragging the issue of seat-sharing. We were talking since the last two months. Seat sharing is always on the basis of popularity of leaders and the party. BJP's expectations were illogical. It should know that alliances are on the basis of winning ability."

BJD's logic and its political movements really indicate at how difficult and interesting election 2009 will be.

Prasanna Acharya echoes Panda's views more forcefully. "In politics, only ground realties matter. You can not be emotional or anything else," he says.

BJP's desperate statements (like 'BJP will expose misdeeds of Naveen government') to the media proves that Patnaik's 'shock and awe' decision has been quite severe.

Dharmendra Acharya, BJP parliamentarian and a leader with promising future in Bhubneshwar, told, "Patnaik had a design and scheme. Tell me, in the confidence motion why is Congress abstaining? He is an opportunist who wants to fool people all the time."

Prasanna Acharya strongly denies allegations that the BJD wanted to have wider selection after election saying, "There is no question of having a direct or indirect relation with the Congress. It is our main opposition party."

However, he concedes that after the election equation can change. Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi are known to be quite close to members of the Panda family in New Delhi.

Renowned journalist Rashid Kidwai, in his updated book on Sonia Gandhi, has mentioned an interesting episode. When Indira Gandhi imposed the emergency, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi did not like it, but kept silent. Sonia met Naveen once at a party. His father Biju Patnaik was heading Utkal Congress (early avatar of the BJD) then. He was jailed by Mrs Indira Gandhi.
Sonia told Naveen, "It must be terrible for you that your father is in jail. I am sorry about it."

Surely, this election has a lot in store.

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Sheela Bhatt