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9-min read

How Naveen Patnaik Played BJP, Congress Using Sun Tzu’s Art of War Playbook - In Jay Panda’s Words

Former Lok Sabha MP Baijayant Panda, whose political future remains uncertain despite speculation since months that he may join the BJP, told News18 in an interview that ancient texts of Sun Tzu’s Art of War taught that wars are won by convincing the enemy that they don’t stand a chance.

Rupashree Nanda | CNN-News18

Updated:January 9, 2019, 5:44 PM IST

Former Lok Sabha MP Baijayant Panda, who resigned from the BJD after months of a bitter feud with Odisha chief minister and party chief Naveen Patnaik, said that his former party has very astutely played the Congress and BJP against each other to hold on to power in the state.

Panda, whose political future remains uncertain despite speculation since months that he may join the BJP, told News18 in an interview that ancient texts of Sun Tzu’s Art of War taught that wars are won by convincing the enemy that they don’t stand a chance. Similarly, Patnaik has created an illusion that if either of BJP or Congress were to take action against, or fight the BJD strongly, the other national party would gain, he said.

He claimed that the BJP has managed to position itself as the principal opposition to the BJD in the state, but was making the same mistakes as Congress, which caused it to slip to third position.

In the wide-ranging conversation, Panda also spoke about Patnaik’s chances of returning to power, his own political future, rumours that PM Narendra Modi may contest Lok Sabha polls from Modi and the chances of a Mahagathbandhan forming the next government at the Centre.

Below are the edited excerpts of the interview:

Q. Your first book has a subtitle - Ground realities, Hard Choices, Tomorrow's India... is that a metaphor for you with regards to what is happening and what is about to unfold?

A. I hadn’t thought about it that way… yes, it could be. Just like the politics of India today is at a very interesting juncture, I think my career is too, after spending 18 years in the Parliament. I quit the BJD and Parliament on principle and I think I disappointed many commentators who predicted I would join a major national party, that I had some ulterior motive... none of that is true. I have not joined anybody in the last seven months. I quit because the BJD had changed from what it had been originally.

Q. Speculation about you joining the BJP was not entirely unfounded. Some believe that the BJP does not want to upset Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik keeping in mind a possible future alliance.

A. As I said, some people were claiming that I had an affinity with the BJP. Let me be very clear. When the BJD started, it started as an ally of the BJP. There was a common programme and I used to champion those programmes. Over the years, some of those ideas got implemented in the last five years and I could not be a hypocrite and say that because the BJP is implementing it, so I will criticize it. I stood by it and many people misrepresented that as being soft on the BJP. So I had never made any announcement or commitment that I was going to join anybody.

Q. You were also once the close confidante of the chief minister. So what happened that you fell out?

A. What happened is that the party which I had been involved in founding, which I had been a very proud member of, it changed. You know for the first 15 years, I struggled very hard in Delhi to build the BJD's image and I was proud of what Naveen was doing back in Odisha: cracking down hard on corruption, on crime, dropping senior cabinet ministers regularly even at the slightest proof of corruption, arresting senior IAS officers and major businessmen who were involved in that nexus. In the last five years, a coterie has taken over, Naveen has delegated his day-to-day authority and you can see the rise in crime and corruption in Odisha.

I will give you one example. When we have shocking crimes like the ones that you saw in Unnao and in Kathua, you get national outrage and coverage, which is justified. We have three to four similar cases in Odisha every week. It does not get national outrage because as somebody has said, it is the tyranny of distance. I could not tolerate that. So I started speaking out against that. I quit because the party changed from what it had been.

Q. Is a possible alliance between the BJD and the BJP stopping the BJP from taking you on? Is the BJP scared of annoying the Chief Minister keeping in view the prospect of a post-poll alliance? A pre poll alliance looks unlikely.

A. You seem to say that I have no say in the matter. That Naveen Patnaik and the BJP will decide where I should join. I am sorry to disappoint you. I will take that decision. Whether BJP and BJD have any sort of ulterior connections, that’s a different issue. They may well have it and many people are saying so.

Q. Do you think the BJD still has a chance of forming the next government given the Chief Minister’s popularity and the lack of alternatives?

A. Media thinks that a lot of things are given. I don't agree with it. But you have hit upon a very interesting aspect though which needs understanding. It is true that the BJD over the years has very astutely played the Congress and BJP against each other. It has created an illusion that if either of them were to take action against, or fight the BJD strongly, the other national party would gain.

When the UPA was in power for ten years, they did not fight the elections strongly in Odisha, neither did they take action against corruption in Odisha. As a result, the Congress slipped to third position. Today, after coming to second position, BJP seems to be making the same mistake and the media is saying that perhaps there is a tacit understanding. If that were to be the case then I am sorry to say that the BJP would harm itself.

Now, is it inevitable? No, because if you look at the opinion polls or surveys, Naveen Patnaik traditionally had extremely high ratings in terms of personal popularity. BJD has slipped quite substantially. I am not saying that he is unpopular, he still enjoys a lot of goodwill. But his popularity ratings as per recent national opinion polls by many organisations show him at quite a drop from the peak of three-four years ago.

Certainly, it is not unassailable. If you go back to ancient texts of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, wars are won by first convincing the enemy that they don’t have any chance. I think the BJD has done a good job on that front. But I don’t think that everybody is convinced. If they are actually willing to put up a fight, things could be very different.

Q. Are you contesting 2019 Lok Sabha elections?

A. I have often said I don’t come from a political background. I think there are many ways to serve my nation and my state. In the last seven months, I have been as active as always. Many people want me to contest. You can see the postings on social media. You can ask the people in Odisha. There is a great deal of outpouring of support for me. I think I should seriously consider contesting. But that’s not the only way to do it.

Q. There is some speculation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is going to contest from Puri. He is probably trying to do a Benaras in Puri. What do you think are the chances? What are the BJP’s chances in Odisha? How many seats?

A. So there is contradictory information coming out. Many BJP members in Odisha have publicly stated that the Prime Minister is likely to contest from Puri. The Prime Minister himself made a statement to the media a few days ago which seemed to dismiss it, though not completely. So it is hard to say.

Look anywhere a PM contests from, it will have an effect. In 1996 when the Narasimha Rao government collapsed, PM Rao himself decided not to contest from Andhra Pradesh and fought from Berhampur in Odisha. He won massively even though his party got routed completely.

So a sitting Prime Minister contesting from anywhere will have an impact. If PM Modi were to contest from Puri, I would imagine he would win. I would imagine that it would have some effect but the fact that they are hesitating, giving contradictory signals I think it is not a plan that has been finalized. It is a half-baked idea.

Q. Do you see the possibility of a Mahagathbandhan forming the Government post the 2019 elections?

A. Mahagathbandhans are most effective if they are pre-elections. Because then you assure victory in many seats because of the combined vote shares. Post elections, these coalitions happen as a compulsion and they are suboptimal.

We have seen that Mahagathbandhans are very difficult. There are differing ideologies and clashing egos. When it comes to by elections, they could combine forces. They were effective. They were able to defeat the BJP in the seats.

But, in state elections such a Mahagathbandhan could not happen. At least not pre-election. That is because it is one thing to have a gathbandhan in one or two seats but it is quite another to have a gathbandhan across a state. It becomes far more challenging to have one in a national election across many states. But if the SP and the BSP are to come together in UP, surely it would have a huge arithmetic impact on the polls.

Q. Who do you see as the next PM?

A. Election is wide open now as compared to a year ago. A year ago, it was fait accompli that NDA would come back to power again. But in the last few months, particularly after the state elections, it has become quite clear that it is a contest. It is by no means over.

Rahul Gandhi has to be given credit for persistence. For many years he has had setbacks. The Congress kept on failing in various elections and yet he kept persevering. He became the butt of jokes and memes. You have to give him credit for that persistence.

Neither should Prime Minister Modi be written out. I believe, he is the most gifted communicator of the generation in our political scene since Vajpayee Ji.

I think it depends on these factors - whether main opposition parties like the Congress continue to seize the initiative as they have shown recently or can PM Modi and the BJP and the NDA get back off from being defensive and again capturing the narrative. I think there is time to do that if they want to. About how successful gathbandhan efforts are? I think it is too early. A week is a long time in politics. Four months is too long. I think it is a wide open contest.​

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