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Biju legacy keeps BJD alive

Print edition : Apr 23, 2004 T+T-
in Bhubaneswar

THE Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa was not born out of a political movement and does not have a developed cadre base at the grassroots level. But it has been in power since its inception in December 1997 and has emerged as one of the prominent regional parties in the country. The party is into its fourth major electoral battle along with the Bharatiya Janata Party, its alliance partner.

In the 1998 general elections, its first, the BJD won nine of the 12 seats it contested and the BJP seven of nine seats. In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls the BJD won 10 of the 12 seats it fought and the BJP all the nine it contested. In the February 2000 Assembly elections, the alliance bagged 106 of the total 147 seats - the BJD winning 68 of the 84 seats it contested and the BJP 38 of 63.

The same seat-sharing arrangement - 12-9 for the Lok Sabha and 84-63 for the Assembly - continues in the present round of Lok Sabha and Assembly elections too. But the alliance faces an uphill task and despite the bonhomie on the surface, both the parties now share an uneasy relationship. The leaders as well as the cadre share a deep-seated mutual distrust.

However, the alliance hopes to ride to victory on the `Vajpayee' factor and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's "clean image". It appears that the alliance will do well in the Lok Sabha polls, but in the Assembly elections it has to make extra efforts to retain power as the Congress(I) has managed to arrive at electoral adjustments with other parties.

The BJD, of which Naveen Patnaik is the president, was founded by a group of leaders of the erstwhile Janata Dal after the death of Biju Patnaik in April 1997. The founder-members named the party after the late leader and it had an instant effect. The outfit continues to remain popular by promising to realise "Biju Babu's" dream of building a prosperous Orissa.

A section of the founder-members had initially thought of joining the BJP. The group consulted the Central leaders of the BJP, but they could not prevent the formation of the new party. In turn, the BJP facilitated the formation of the BJD on the condition that the new regional outfit would be its ally in Orissa. The BJD's survival has been as dramatic as its birth, with Naveen Patnaik facing several revolts against his leadership. Each time he has won by using suspension and ouster as his main weapons.

Interestingly, the BJD continues to maintain its position despite the exit of several of its founder-members. Prominent among them are Rajya Sabha member Dilip Ray and former Ministers Bijay Mohapatra and Ramakrushna Patnaik. While Mohapatra has formed the Orissa Gana Parishad, which is fighting the Assembly polls in alliance with the Congress(I), both Ray and Patnaik have joined the Congress(I).

"Making Naveen the BJD president was our biggest mistake," says Ray. "We formed the BJD to build the Orissa of Biju Babu's dreams. By joining hands with the BJP, we hoped to get a better deal for the State from the Centre. But the BJD has been acting as the B-team of the BJP with Patnaik clinging onto power by compromising the State's interests."

Mohapatra echoed this sentiment and added: "The BJD has no political character. It has not been able to raise any issue relating to Orissa's development or the continued neglect of the State by the Centre."

Says Rabi Das, political analyst and editor of the Oriya daily Paryabekhyak: "The BJD appears to have no vision. It is thriving on the legacy of Biju Patnaik, who had created a strong anti-Congress base in the State." He apprehends that once the BJD loses power, it will disintegrate and be gobbled up by the BJP.

The criticism may be justified considering the BJD's failure to fulfil its promise to secure `special category State' status for Orissa or a special package for the State's poor, except in the KBK (Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput) districts. More than 47 per cent of the State's people live below the poverty line. Although a member of the NDA and the major partner in the State government, the BJD has not been able to take up the cause of Orissa at least on two major issues: the proposed privatisation of the National Aluminium Company (Nalco) and the oil refinery project of Indian Oil Corporation at Paradip.

BJD workers participated in a day-long bandh along with supporters of other parties against the privatisation of Nalco, but the State government has not been able to get an assurance from the Centre against the privatisation.

All that Naveen Patnaik did was to write several times to the Prime Minister registering his protest. Secondly, the coalition government also failed to impress upon the Centre the need for timely completion of the oil refinery. The refinery was to be made operational by August 2003, but the work is yet to start.

While the party has failed to fight for the State's interests, it has also remained weak organisationally. There has been no membership drive, and its State executive committee remains in limbo. With Naveen Patnaik clipping the wings of several regional chieftains who were once close to his father, the party is bereft of heads in several regions.

Ironically, many leaders who were initially opposed to the creation of the BJD are now helping Naveen Patnaik run the party. On the other hand, the BJP has developed a strong network of dedicated workers at the grassroots level, though none of the top-line leaders of the party has even a fraction of the popularity Naveen Patnaik enjoys.

As on date, the BJD is cashing in on the reservoir of goodwill created by Biju Patnaik. But the outfit may fade into oblivion if its fails to build a strong regional identity.