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In Quest to Defeat Naveen Patnaik, BJP Goes Back to Its 1997 Strategy

As part of the move, the BJP is trying to get senior leaders, who either left the BJD on their own or were thrown out by the party supremo, together for formation of a regional party to take on the BJD.

Sandeep Sahu |

Updated:September 14, 2018, 2:32 PM IST
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In Quest to Defeat Naveen Patnaik, BJP Goes Back to Its 1997 Strategy
File image of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
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When the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) walked out of Lok Sabha even before the debate on the no trust vote against the BJP-led Modi government began on July 20, speculation was rife in political circles in Odisha that the two erstwhile allies are inching closer ahead of the next general elections.

There was sound basis for such speculation since the scarcely-veiled move to bail out the Modi government in the Lok Sabha came on top of a series of instances over the preceding months that had given enough indications about the two parties burying their hatchet and keeping the door ajar for a possible tie up, either before or after the election.

The idea was to persist with the ‘blow hot blow cold’ strategy, which has seen the BJD and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) going hammer and tongs at the state level even as they collaborated whenever the Modi government needed support on crucial issues in Parliament, till the elections.

Two months down the line, there appears to be a twist in the tale. The BJP, which appeared reconciled to the possibility of Naveen Patnaik winning an unprecedented fifth successive term in office not so long ago, now looks like exploring alternative options to dislodge Patnaik.

As part of the move, it is trying to get senior leaders, who either left the BJD on their own or were thrown out by the party supremo, together for formation of another regional party to take on the BJD.

It had adopted the same strategy after the death of Biju Patnaik in 1997 when it engineered a split in the Janata Dal, facilitated the birth of the BJD and tied up with the new party to fight the 1998 elections together, the alliance winning 16 out of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

The grapevine has it that at least five senior leaders, who were shown the door after falling out with Patnaik, are meeting soon to finalise the issue. According to sources, they are former minister Prafulla Ghadai, Bijoy Mohapatra and Dillip Ray (both of them sulking in the BJP at the moment), Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda and Dr. Damodar Rout.

Rout was expelled by Patnaik on Wednesday after he raked up a series of corruption scandals in the Naveen Patnaik government. They are banking on other disgruntled leaders in the BJD and sitting MLAs likely to lose their tickets in the next election to bolster their ranks.

The one thing common among all these leaders is that they all cut their political teeth under Biju Patnaik. Rout, in fact, was the last of senior leaders, who were close associates of the man in whose name the BJD was formed.

The strategy is to position this new formation as the ‘true’ inheritor of the ‘Biju legacy’ and paint Patnaik as the ‘usurper’. The second common factor among these leaders is that all of them belong to the politically crucial coastal belt where the BJD has been unbeatable in past elections. [The party won 68 out of the 77 Assembly seats and all the Lok Sabha seats in the region in 2014.] Despite all its efforts, the BJP has failed to make inroads in this BJD bastion. Hence, it is now banking on the new regional party to do what it could not do itself: break the stranglehold the ruling party in the coast.

But it is easier said than done. For one thing, Patnaik’s popularity has shown no signs of fading despite 18 uninterrupted years in power. For another, there is a world of difference between the situations in 1997 and now.

Patnaik, then a complete novice, has emerged as a consummate player of the political game and has vanquished many stalwarts with his deft moves in the time since then. While there is no denying that there is disgruntlement in the BJD, it is doubtful if they would take the risk of joining a rival formation whose future is uncertain.

Then there is also the question of whether there is enough time left for the formalities of the formation of a new party to be completed before the election. Even if it is formed in time, it will be a Herculean task to mobilise the cadres for the election in such a short span of time.

As of now, it is clearly advantage Patnaik. The BJD supremo appeared nonchalant when asked about the possibility of the formation a new party on his return from New Delhi on Thursday.

“I don’t think it will have any impact,” was his laconic answer. But he would have to do something about the corruption cases raised by Dr. Rout and his allegation that the BJD and its government are being run by a ‘coterie consisting of an officer and three MLAs’. Significantly, former Kendrapara MP Jay Panda, too, had been shown the door after he launched a scathing attack against the same officer who, as everyone knows, is the Chief Minister’s private secretary VK Pandian.

A week, as they say, is a long in politics. And since there are several weeks still left for the elections, a lot can change between now and poll time. But Naveen would need all his political skills to come unscathed from this pincer attack because 2019 is not going to be a cakewalk like 2014 was.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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