Bhubaneswar: Odisha Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo Naveen Patnaik has evidently little interest in playing it big in national politics, but he does relish being the kingmaker, if not the king himself.
A statement by one of his trusted aides set tongues wagging on Friday amid ongoing overtures from both BJP and Congress to woo Patnaik into their camps in the event of neither NDA nor UPA gaining a clear majority when results of the Lok Sabha polls are declared on May 23.
“Considering his (Patnaik’s) educational qualifications, experience, his expertise in Indian politics and the fact that he is India’s number one chief minister, he is perfectly fit to be the prime minister. There is no doubt about it,” said BJD vice-president Surya Narayan Patro. He was, however, cagey about the deliberations within the regional party about the extent and ambition of its role after the nation’s verdict is out. “Naveen Patnaik has never said that he wants to be the prime minister,” added Patro.
While relations between BJP and BJD, the two former allies who parted ways in 2008 and turned bitter rivals, went sharply downhill during the vociferous campaign trail for Odisha’s simultaneously held Lok Sabha and Assembly polls, there have been signs of a thaw after Cyclone Fani hit the eastern state on May 3. The four-phase polls in the state were over on April 29.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Patnaik targeted each other and traded barbs in their campaign speeches across the state. But Modi profusely praised Patnaik for the state government’s pre-cyclone evacuation exercise that kept the death toll low at 64 and offered all help to the state to tackle the post-cyclone reconstruction process. Patnaik reciprocated by praising Modi, who had an aerial survey of the cyclone-hit areas along with him three days after the tragedy hit the state.
Even though at least four people were killed in Odisha allegedly in poll-related violence and several clashes were reported, BJP national president Amit Shah recently appeared to exonerate Odisha earlier this week while hitting out at West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for political violence in her state during the polls. Shah had been blunt in his tirades against Patnaik all through BJP’s high-voltage campaigns in Odisha, but his statements after the polls indicated what political analysts see as a “softening of mind” by the saffron party.
Congress, keen to fill the void with elan in the event of NDA failing to garner a clear majority in Lok Sabha, has also made overtures to Patnaik. With UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi of Congress planning a meeting of Opposition parties in New Delhi on May 23, Madhya Pradesh CM and senior Congress leader Kamal Nath reportedly made a phone call to Patnaik inviting him to attend the meeting. Nath and Patnaik are known to share a close rapport as they were classmates at the famous Doon School.
Patnaik has said that he considers BJP to be a greater enemy of his party than Congress, but chances of he agreeing to be prime minister in a Congress-led UPA dispensation appear thin.
“If a government (at the Centre) is formed with support from Congress, he (Patnaik) should not become prime minister because India’s political history says that whoever became prime minister with Congress support was cheated and forced to leave the post in very small time,” said Patro, hastening to add that it is his personal opinion.
Patnaik has made it clear that his party would extend support to whichever alliance assures to safeguard and promote Odisha’s interests after forming a government at the Centre. “There has been a decision taken in principle that BJD will support the alliance that helps further Odisha’s interests such as facilitating the grant of special category state status to the state,” said Patro.
“Only time will reveal this. It is premature to say,” he said while talking about Patnaik becoming a contender for prime ministership and the likelihood of his extending support to the BJP-led NDA in forming the government at the Centre.