INDIAN EXPRESS OP-ED PAGE (March 10, 2009)
By Swapan Dasgupta
Naveen Patnaik has been in active politics for just 12 years: a year as a backbench MP, two years as a Union Cabinet minister and nine years as Chief Minister of Orissa. Yet, he has been one of India’s most underestimated politicians. When he assumed the mantle of Biju Patnaik, many of his party colleagues reckoned he would be a complete pushover. The BJP, his alliance partner until last Sunday evening, mistook his understated style for permanent acquiescence. Unable to fathom his aloofness and reticence, not to mention his infrequent appearances in Delhi, the national media relegated him to the inside pages. In an age of flamboyant chief ministers, Patnaik ended up being regarded as a bit player with a high profile ambassador in Delhi.
Patnaik’s cold-blooded termination of an 11-year alliance with the BJP last Sunday has suddenly generated interest in one of India’s most successful but enigmatic politicians. Has he, it is being asked, been jolted into secularism after Kandhamal? Has he been taken for a ride by confidants? Or, has he developed national ambitions that can’t be accommodated within the NDA?
To many political buffs, Patnaik’s latest move seems whimsical and uncharacteristic of a man who is inherently cautious. Together, the BJD and BJP had hogged the entire anti-Congress space in Orissa for a decade. The pooling of votes and geographical synergy—the BJD dominated the coastal belt and the BJP was strong in western Orissa—ensured that the Congress was kept out of power from 2000. In 1995, the Congress swept into power with 80 of the 147 Assembly seats and 39.1 per cent votes because the anti-Congress vote was split between the Biju Patnaik-led Janata Dal (35.4 per cent) and BJP (7.9 per cent). In 2000, however, the BJD-BJP alliance won 106 seats and 47.6 per cent votes against a Congress which could manage just 26 seats and 33.8 per cent vote. It was the same story in 2004 when the BJD-BJP combine won 93 seats and 44.5 per cent; the Congress could win just 38 seats with its 34.8 per cent vote.
Is Patnaik jeopardising a guaranteed third-term by fragmenting the anti-Congress vote in Orissa? His local alliance with the Communists, NCP and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha will result in an accretion of not more than 3.5 per cent vote, not enough to cover the shortfall from the BJP’s exit. A.B. Bardhan and Prakash Karat can secure Patnaik’s rehabilitation in the liberal intelligentsia; they are not in a position to match the BJP vote for vote.
If conspiracy theories that reverberate in Bhubaneshwar and small-town Orissa are to be believed, Patnaik has fallen prey to the personal agendas of Pyare Mohan Mahapatra—the ju-ju man of Orissa—and Jay Panda. That’s a load of rubbish. Patnaik is neither impressionable nor swayed by personal friendships. He has a reputation for cold calculation and, unlike his father, is not temperamentally volatile. Even if the local BJP needled him incessantly for the past five years, he has been on the best of terms with the BJP national leadership, particularly Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. The break-up of the BJD-BJP alliance happened on account of problems over seat-sharing. It was not an outcome of profound ideological differences.
Patnaik’s go-it-alone gamble is premised on two parallel assumptions, culled from the results of municipal and panchayat elections over the past two years. The local elections, which were fought by all the parties independently, saw dramatic increases in the strength of the BJD, minor gains for the Congress and significant losses for the BJP. In the municipal polls in Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack, held in the past six months, spectacular gains for the BJD were accompanied by pathetic Congress and BJP performances. Both cities were the home turf of two important BJP Cabinet ministers. Despite loud boasting, the BJP also performed very poorly in Kandhamal and Mayurbhanj district which have witnessed tensions over Christian missionary activity.
The local election results clearly suggested that the 63 Assembly allotted to the BJP needed downward revision. Patnaik was concerned that the BJP no longer had the clout to put up a meaningful fight against the Congress. He genuinely feared that an indifferent BJP performance would lead to the alliance losing its majority in the Assembly. Based on the elections to local bodies, he calculated that the BJD was now the number one party in Orissa, strong enough to defeat the fractured challenge of the Congress and BJP.
The decline of the BJP in Orissa, the BJD believed, was also linked to the questionable reputation of some of its ministers. Over the past two years, prominent BJP ministers, including a former state president, have had to resign following revelations of their colourful personal lives.
Patnaik’s greatest political asset is his unimpeachable integrity. His government may not be as dynamic and efficient as, say, the one run by Narendra Modi in Gujarat. However, there is quiet public appreciation of the Chief Minister’s personal uprightness and his intolerance of corruption. The BJD was apprehensive that Patnaik’s untainted image would be diluted by some rotten apples in the basket. The surgical detachment of deviants has enabled Patnaik to combine his “good man” image with a “strong man” reputation. Earlier, the weeding out process was largely confined to his own party. Now he has extended it dramatically to the whole alliance, not least because the BJP did not undertake its own internal spring cleaning.
By showing the BJP the door, Patnaik has taken a calculated gamble. The response to his public meetings in the past three months has convinced him that the Rs 2/kg rice programme will pay handsome electoral dividends, as it did for the BJP in Chhattisgarh, and allow him to also undercut the Congress’ social constituency. If his audacity pays off, he wins a third term and national compulsions deem it fit, he can move back to the NDA—with honour, on better terms and unencumbered by local baggage. He doesn’t belong in a rag-tag Third Front. (END)