On a roll in Orissa

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST

The BJD-BJP juggernaut trundles to power in Orissa by capitalising on the anti-incumbency mood directed at the Congress(I). For Naveen Patnaik, however, rebuilding the near-bankrupt State is certain to prove a severe test.


ON March 5, the Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine, which has wrested power from the Congress(I) in Orissa, will form a new government in Bhubaneswar. The date of the swearing-in is not without significance: it is the birth anniversary of the late Biju Patnaik, whose son and Union Minister for Steel and Mines Naveen Patnaik is to take over as Chief Minister. For Naveen Patnaik, a 51-year-old bachelor who entered politics barely three years ago, assuming office on that day would be a richly s ymbolic way of paying tribute to the man whose goodwill he has inherited and to whose memory he owes a fair bit of his political success.

Capitalising on the anti-incumbency factor in the State, the BJD-BJP combine secured a two-thirds majority in the 147-member Assembly, virtually repeating its performance in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, when it won 19 of the 21 parliamentary seats in th e State. The BJD contested 84 Assembly seats and won 68; the BJP won 38 of the 63 seats it contested. The Congress(I), which had 81 members in the previous Assembly, suffered a serious setback; it won only 26 seats. Immediately after the results were ann ounced, Congress(I) leader Hemananda Biswal, who had taken over from Giridhar Gamang as Chief Minister in December 1999, submitted his resignation to Governor M.M. Rajendran.

The victory offers both the BJD and the State unit of the BJP the first shot at governance in the State, although leaders from both parties have worked together as Ministers in an earlier, Janata Dal government headed by Biju Patnaik. Naveen Patnaik was all along projected as the combine's choice for chief ministership. The BJP has now staked its claim for the post of Deputy Chief Minister.

Keen to begin the Ministry-making exercise, Naveen Patnaik held discussions with senior party colleagues immediately after the results were announced. On February 27, the BJD Legislature Party unanimously elected him its leader. Naveen Patnaik told Fr ontline that a joint sitting of the MLAs of the BJD and the BJP would be held. (Indications were that the alliance leader would be elected at a joint sitting on February 29.) Other formalities relating to Ministry-making would be complied with subseq uently. The size of his Ministry, he said, would be "neither too big nor too small".

Ending his campaign with a whirlwind tour of his rural constituency of Hinjli in Ganjam district, Naveen Patnaik pledged to spare more time than he has so far had for the State, which "has been ruined by the Congress(I)". This is the first time that Nave en Patnaik has contested an Assembly election. In 1998 and 1999, he was elected from the Aska parliamentary constituency, of which Hinjli is an Assembly segment. In 1998, the new entrant to politics acquired a national profile in the BJP-led coalition go vernment when he was appointed Union Minister for Steel and Mines, a post his father once held. But whereas Biju Patnaik moved to the Centre after making a mark in State politics, his son has moved in the other direction.

FOR the Congress(I), the defeat, although not unanticipated, was a big blow. Most of the party's stalwarts, including former Chief Minister and State party president Janaki Ballabh Patnaik, who contested in Athgarh, and former Chief Minister Basanta Kuma r Biswal, the candidate in Tirtol, were defeated. As many as 19 members in the previous Ministry lost; only Hemananda Biswal, one Cabinet Minister (Gajadhar Majhi) and seven Ministers of State survived the BJD-BJP juggernaut.

Frontline asked Biswal if infighting in the Congress(I), which had seen three leaders appointed Chief Ministers successively in a span of six months, was responsible for the party's poor performance. He replied, somewhat evasively, that "several f actors" had contributed to the debacle.

Accepting moral responsibility for the defeat, J.B. Patnaik sent in his resignation to Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. "One has to accept the mandate," he said, and added that people had voted for change. He, however, seemed to suggest that the party could look to the future with hope. "In 1990 we were reduced to 10 seats, yet we returned to power in 1995." Asked about his defeat at Athgarh, he said he had erred in shifting from Begunia to Athgarh.

The Congress(I) has conceded 55 seats to the BJD-BJP combine. On the other hand, the BJD-BJP combine has retained 40 seats, and annexed 11 others from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the Janata Dal (Secular), the Janata Dal (United), the Jharkhand Peop le's Party (JPP) and independents. One significant factor in the elections was the presence of over 100 rebel candidates, most of them from the BJD, the BJP or the Congress(I). While eight rebel candidates - four from the BJP, three from the BJD and one from the Congress(I) - defeated the official nominees, 17 lost by narrow margins. In several constituencies, rebels and independents influenced the results, even if they themselves did not win.

The JMM, which had four members in the previous Assembly, retained three seats. The Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which were unrepresented in the previous Assembly, have gained one seat each at the Congress(I)'s exp ense. The Janata Dal(S) too won one seat. The All India Trinamul Congress (AITC) opened its account in the State: its nominee Trilochan Behra trounced Atanu Sabyasachi of the BJD by over 36,000 votes in Patkura in Kendrapara district; the contest here wa s seen as a proxy war between Naveen Patnaik and expelled party leader Bijoy Mohapatra. Mohapatra, who was denied the party ticket at the last moment, backed the AITC candidate.

Among the prominent losers in the BJD-BJP camp were State BJP president Manmohan Samal (in Dhamnagar) and BJD Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Sachidananda Dalal (in Boudh). Samal was defeated by Manas Ranjan Mallick, a BJD rebel.

The BJD-BJP alliance won most of the seats in western and southern Orissa; the Congress(I) did well in some of the coastal segments. Laxmipur, which was a Congress(I) bastion (it was represented by Giridhar Gamang in the previous Assembly), fell to the B JD this time: Gaurchandra Muduli lost to Bibhishan Majhi by over 12,000 votes. Gamang had opted out of the contest this time. In Cuttack city constituency, Samir Dey of the BJP defeated Mushtafiz Ahmed of the Congress(I) by a margin of 33,640 votes.

GIVEN the infighting in the Congress(I) and the party's poor record of governance, the BJD-BJP alliance virtually coasted to power without any serious challenge. But within the BJD, Naveen Patnaik was kept on his toes by rivalry and squabbles. He suspend ed several senior partymen but was forced to revoke the suspension orders following a virtual revolt. However, on the last day for filing nominations, he expelled his adversary and party stalwart Bijoy Mohapatra from the party. The timing was crucial as Mohapatra could not file his nomination papers as an independent candidate. By activating his connections with some central leaders of the BJP, Naveen Patnaik pre-empted any opposition from the State BJP. A few leaders in the State BJP had been running d own his credentials, saying that a man who had only a rudimentary knowledge of the Oriya language and the State's cultural and political history was not the right choice for Chief Minister. But the central leaders made it clear that Naveen Patnaik had th eir support.

This is not to say that Naveen Patnaik will face no challenges. He may have inherited his father's goodwill, but he has also "inherited" from the previous regime a State that is close to bankruptcy and an ineffective administration that is riven by group ism. Rebuilding the cyclone-ravaged coast and getting the State's fiscal position in order will prove to be a stern test of his administrative mettle.

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