A revolt in Orissa

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

Rebel BJD legislators, dissatisfied with Navin Patnaik's style of functioning, are threatening to bring down his government, while the Chief Minister remains indecisive on how to deal with them.

NAVIN PATNAIK, Orissa Chief Minister and president of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), is a worried man today. His rivals have been trying for some time to split the party and now, after the Rajya Sabha elections in March, the rebels have gathered substantial strength to challenge his leadership. By winning the Rajya Sabha election on March 27 as an independent candidate, BJD leader Dilip Ray has made it clear that he has the support of a good number of party legislators. Ten days before the elections, Patnaik expelled Ray, one of the founder-members of the BJD and a former Union Minister, from the party. Ray won amid large-scale cross-voting by legislators of the BJD and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party. Much to Patnaik's consternation, Ray, who was Industry Minister in Biju Patnaik's Cabinet, managed to get the votes of 14 BJD and eight BJP legislators. Besides, he bagged the votes of two MLAs of the Congress(I), one of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and one independent.

Faced with a rebellion from within his party and from the BJP, Navin Patnaik rushed to Delhi to seek Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's support. Informed sources said that Patnaik lodged a strong protest against the State leadership of the BJP, which, he alleged, had refused to take action against the eight MLAs who supported Ray and had been working in tandem with Ray to unseat him. After meeting the Prime Minister, Patnaik dismissed as speculation reports that moves were afoot to displace him.

The BJP-BJD alliance in Orissa has been under strain for quite a while. A powerful group in the State unit of the BJP wants the party to pull out of the government and provide outside support as it is "disgusted over the government's non-performance and the Chief Minister's style of functioning". At a BJP Legislature Party meeting early this year, party MLAs criticised the way in which the coalition government was run by the BJD and the Chief Minister's refusal to listen to anyone other than a coterie of bureaucrats. They also said that the party would suffer unless it withdrew from the government.

The conflict between the two parties reached a crisis point during the panchayat elections. Signs of a rift were evident after the coalition partners failed to arrive at a seat-sharing formula. As a result, the BJP performed miserably and also spoiled the BJD's chances at several places, to the advantage of the Congress(I). The coalition was further weakened after the March 16 attack on the Orissa Assembly building by certain Sangh Parivar outfits. Without directly accusing the BJP, Damodar Rout, secretary-general of the BJD, alleged that the Sangh Parivar activists were used by "narrow-minded, corrupt and power-hungry people". He said, "The incident has not only damaged the secular image of the State but exposed the fascist face of Hindutva fundamentalists."

The election of Dilip Ray to the Rajya Sabha has created a new dissident platform, which includes Bijoy Mahapatra, another rival whom Navin Patnaik had expelled in controversial circumstances just before the Assembly elections in February 2000. Patnaik had issued Mahapatra, another founder-member of the BJD and an influential political leader, the party ticket to contest the elections. But on the last date for the filing of nominations Patnaik chose somebody else. Patnaik's calculated action gave Mahapatra little time to complete the formalities required to contest even as an independent.

Within six months of his expulsion, Bijoy Mahapatra floated a new political forum, the Orissa Gana Parishad (OGP). The OGP was backed by leaders of the Janata Dal(United) and Janata Dal(Secular) besides some disgruntled BJP leaders. The State unit of the JD(S), headed by Ashok Das, former president of the undivided Janata Dal in Orissa, enjoys considerable influence in several districts. But the rank and file of the party, who consist mostly of non-Congress(I) and non-BJP elements, are disappointed as the party is politically inactive in the State. Prominent leaders of the OGP are member of Parliament Tathagata Satpathy, former BJP MP Upendra Nayak, State president of the JD(U) Narasingha Mishra and BJP leader Shanti Das.

The OGP, said to be the harbinger of a new regional political party, is the sixth of its kind in the State's political history. The Ganatantra Parishad, the first regional party, was formed in 1950 by Rajendra Narayan Singhdeo and it ruled Orissa in coalition with the Congress for three years from 1957 with Singhdeo as Chief Minister. In 1966, Harekrishna Mahatab left the Congress to form the Jana Congress, which formed the government with the support of the Swatantra Party after the 1967 Assembly elections. It was in power for two years. Biju Patnaik formed the Utkal Congress in 1969. Although Patnaik was defeated in the elections that year, his party, along with the Jharkhand Party and the Swatantra Party, formed the government, which was headed by Biswanath Das, a non-controversial independent member. That government fell within a year and the Congress came to power after a fresh round of elections. The fourth regional party, the Jagrata Orissa, was formed in 1985 by Nandini Satpathy. In the Assembly elections later that year Satpathy was elected but all other party candidates lost. The fifth regional party, the BJD, was formed by Navin Patnaik in 1998.

Soon after he was elected to the Rajya Sabha, Dilip Ray reportedly began making moves to split the BJD with the help of more than a dozen rebel MLAs and bring about a rift in the coalition. The BJD has 73 members, and the coalition has a comfortable majority in the 147-member Assembly. But if 20-odd MLAs break away, Patnaik's government will be in trouble. Speculation is rife that the rebels may first try to split the parliamentary party. Informed sources said that at least four of the party's 10 Lok Sabha members were in touch with Dilip Ray.

State Finance Minister Ramakrushna Patnaik announced on April 6 his decision to resign from the Cabinet. The Minister is reportedly dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the government, particularly the manner in which some people close to the Chief Minister are being "encouraged" to speak ill of him after the Rajya Sabha elections. He was also unhappy with the Chief Minister's treatment of Dilip Ray and the way the latter was ignominiously expelled from the party. The Chief Minister dropped a BJP member and two BJD members from his Cabinet last year.

Now, anticipating a serious threat to his leadership, Navin Patnaik has announced a Cabinet expansion. This is intended to curb the growing dissension within his party. There are reports that the Chief Minister may induct as many as seven members from the BJD and three from the BJP. In order to appease the rebels, especially leaders from the coastal belt, he may induct another five Ministers, taking the size of the Ministry to 37.

A senior BJD leader confided that a mere Cabinet expansion would not deter the rebels as the party has become a personal fief of Navin Patnaik. "Can you offer ministerial berths to two dozen MLAs?" he asked.

Patnaik's misery has stemmed from his failure to ensure the smooth functioning of the ruling alliance. His attempts to eliminate his rivals politically, first Bijoy Mahapatra and then Dilip Ray, have escalated infighting and factionalism. The combined strength of Mahapatra and Ray, observers feel, can pose a serious threat to the Chief Minister's position. The Chief Minister's own men now accuse him of inefficiency. They say that he has failed to take on corruption and also to deal with problems that arose immediately after disasters such as the super-cyclone and obtain the help of a friendly government at the Centre to take up development programmes.

Navin Patnaik appears to be dithering in taking action against those 14 party MLAs who defied the whip and voted for Dilip Ray. The party knows who violated the whip, as there was no attempt on the part of the rebels to keep their stand a secret. Any action against them is likely to cause a split in the party. Observers believe that the combined forces of Mahapatra and Ray would script the next chapter in the State's politics.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment