On April 16, two days after a BJP worker was allegedly killed by BJD men, Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Bhubaneswar said there was no need to fear goons and “we are committed to eliminating Goonda Raj from Odisha”.
Just a month later on May 15, BJP chief Amit Shah compared the governments of Odisha and West Bengal, saying violence only occurred in Mamata Banerjee’s state while Naveen Patnaik’s Odisha had seen no such incidents.
The wheel seems to have turned full circle in the last one month for the “on again, off again” relationship between the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha. In this one month, Patnaik has turned from the man who unleashed ‘goonda raj’ in Odisha to a paragon of non-violence for the saffron party.
One doesn’t really have to be a professional ‘political observer’ to figure out the reason behind this new-found love for Patnaik in the BJP. With the results of the general elections due to be announced on May 23, the ruling party at the Centre is understandably keen to ensure that the BJD supremo, its most trust-worthy non-NDA ‘ally’ in Parliament during the last five years, remains on its side.
The thaw in relations between the two parties, which swore at each other during the campaign, was the talking point when Modi visited Odisha for an aerial survey of the areas devastated by Cyclone Fani on May 6.
The bonhomie between the two leaders, who called each other names during the campaign only weeks ago, was hard to miss as they hopped on to a chopper for the joint aerial survey and Modi praised Patnaik profusely for the evacuation of 14 lakh vulnerable people to safety ahead of the cyclone. On Tuesday, the Chief Minister returned the compliment, generously thanking Modi and his government for extending all possible help for rescue, relief and restoration work during and after the cyclone. If the elections set the two estranged partners apart from each other, Cyclone Fani appears to have brought them together once again!
But the Congress isn’t sitting idle either. It has also begun wooing Patnaik in right earnest in the hope of forming a non-BJP government at the Centre. UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi has invited him, among others, for a meeting of non-BJP parties in New Delhi on May 23, while good friend Kamal Nath is believed to have had a rather longish chat with his former classmate recently. It is not clear, however, if BJD would accept the invitation or skip the meet as it has done in the past.
While Patnaik himself has not spoken a word on the subject, party spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Pratap Kedhari Deb said on Wednesday that such talks are ‘nothing unusual’ at such times, giving no hint whether the party would accept the invitation or not. Sources in the party, however, said while it is unlikely that Patnaik himself would attend the formal meeting, it is certainly possible that he could depute someone on his behalf — if only to send a message to the BJP that it cannot take his support for granted, notwithstanding the recent détente between the two sides.
Just about the only authoritative statement we have had so far from the ‘horse’s mouth’ is what Patnaik had said on the subject at the height of the election campaign. “The BJD will support whichever side offers the best deal to Odisha,” the Chief Minister had told several TV channels at the time. What it means is that the BJD boss has no favourites when it comes to the two principal contenders for power at the Centre and his support would be guided purely by enlightened self-interest rather than any ideological positioning.
There is, however, a third side too that is banking on Patnaik’s support to make a bid for power at the Centre: the fledgling Federal (Third) Front, an idea that TRS chief K Chandrashekar Rao and TMC boss Mamata Banerjee have pursued diligently. While there has been no formal meeting between the proponents of the Front since KCR’s meeting with Patnaik in Bhubanewar last year, informal talks could begin anytime in the near future — if they haven’t started already, that is. Among the prospective allies the Front proponents are looking at are the BJD and the JD(U), which has just described the BJD as a ‘member of the family’!
Ever the pragmatist, Patnaik, in all likelihood, would wait for result day to see which way the political wind is blowing and only then take a call on which side to back. Depending on the numbers, he could side with any one of the three major contenders for power.
Patnaik has already made it abundantly clear that he has no ‘national ambitions’. But with his party widely expected to win a good number of Lok Sabha seats, he could well play the kingmaker at the Centre this time.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)