The cold war between Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and Baijayant Panda, an MP from his party, the BJD, has become a matter of fanciful speculation in state politics. With just 18 months to go for elections, political circles are talking of the possibility of the emergence of new alignments and the potential of Jayant Panda, popular, articulate, industrialist, to play spoiler. So far, Panda has not made any major allegations against Patnaik. Patnaik’s name of late has been linked to chit funds under scrutiny by the CBI as well as some controversies over mining contracts. But they have so far not sullied his image.
Panda’s criticism of his leader, expressed in columns in newspapers – gains significance because of two reasons. Firstly, after a strong showing in elections to local bodies last June, the BJP is on the ascent in Odisha, where Patnaik is serving his fourth consecutive term as Chief Minister. The party, projecting union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan as the potential Chief Minister, is making an all-out effort to snatch the state from BJD. Secondly, Jayant Panda is a long-time family friend of Naveen Patnaik and his criticism of the Chief Minister has been matched with equally lavish admiration for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His tweets and active media and social media interventions were often seen as great relief for the Modi government. On freedom of expression, Aadhaar, GST, intolerance, demonetization, foreign policy and budget allocation, Panda’s celebrated columns in the national media were largely akin to the BJP views. On the economic slowdown after demonetization and GST, Panda was optimistic about a rebound in TV debates.
As a top industrialist from Odisha, Panda has major stakes in the local media. In Delhi, he is the most visible face of the BJD because of his long stints in first the Rajya Sabha and then the Lok Sabha along with his noteworthy oratorical skills. In the Lok Sabha, he represents the Kendrapara constituency, which for long was represented by Naveen’s father, Biju Patnaik, the most respected political name in Odisha politics. This in itself is an indication of how close Panda family has been to Naveen’s family.
The simmering of tension between Panda and the Chief Minister has been obvious for more than six months. Last week at a function in Kendrapara, the heavy deployment of security forces raised eyebrows. Here, Panda criticized Patnaik’s sincerity in fighting corruption. He alleged that the officials and politicians he brought to the Chief Minister’s notice as corrupt have been protected by the leader. He wondered how committed Patnaik was to erasing corruption.
Patnaik has dominated the Odisha political spectrum with his Teflon image and tactics which were welcome after a long spell of corruption and cronyism of Congress regimes. Patnaik is a political phenomenon with very few parallels in Indian politics. Indications are that he is going strong even for his fifth innings. The Congress is down in the dumps and the party leadership has been particularly casual about its fate.
The BJP, arguably the number two in the state, won only a single seat in the 2014 election, but stood second in about a dozen other seats. All but one of the 21 parliamentary seats were won by BJD. A similar feat was achieved in the assembly too.
Patnaik has been a mastermind in quashing rebellion within and engineering defection from other parties. He accommodated many senior leaders from the BJP and Congress, a strategy to weaken the opposition. Once ex bureaucrat Pyari Mohan Mohapatra was considered the power behind the throne. But when he became a rebel, he was thrown out in 2012 and politically crushed.
Patnaik’s political tenacity is often understated. He gives the impression of a simple, detached, timid leader. This low public profile is often misread. He first emerged successful playing second fiddle to the BJP in 1999. For two elections, he kept the BJP in good humour. The third time, he stitched up a new alliance with minor players like JMM, CPI, etc. and mercilessly ditched the BJP. Ever since the BJP has been striving hard to recover. Later, Patnaik ditched those comrades and the JMM and their friend Pyari Mohan. Naveen, who usually don’t accept rebellion, has in fact been very patient with Jayant Panda. When pressmen asked if action will be taken against Panda, his response ten days ago was cryptic – “the party will decide”.
It is too early to predict Panda’s exit. He may or may not be denied a ticket from Patnaik’s fiefdom. Panda is resourceful and popular in the seat. He can try his luck with BJP help. It is not clear if he has the support of many other MLAs or MPs from his party. His could even turn out to be a storm in a tea cup. But his fascination for the BJP is undeniable.
Of late, the BJP has been working hard to consolidate and challenge Patnaik. The Prime Minister and party chief Amit Shah have made many visits to the state to motivate the cadre. Amit Shah’s organizational skill and poll strategies are legendary. The centre has initiated many major projects inaugurated by the PM. There are 92 populist central schemes which the BJP believes will sway the voter over to its side. But often these schemes are executed through the state government and Patnaik tries to take his share of credit. It is to be seen if Panda is planning to grow the BJP ranks with dissidents from his party. The BJP has used this strategy to expand in states like UP, Haryana and Jharkhand. The party is likely to try the same here.
The irony is that Patnaik has not been hostile to the central BJP government the way that Mamata or the CPM are. He has been supportive of the BJP government on most issues. There are some observers who believe that at the time of 2019 polls, he might go with the BJP, especially because the BJP has been growing steadily in the tribal areas of Odisha. And Modi is immensely popular here. His campaigns can swing the tide in BJP’s favour. For now, this means Panda will wait to take the final plunge.
(Dr R. Balashankar is Member, BJP Central Committee on Training, and Committee on Publications and former Convener BJP National Intellectual Cell and former Editor Organiser.)