Naveen Patnaik: The regional powerhouse

Patnaik is still popular, but there is discontent within the BJD over his apparent choice of successor, making him vulnerable to opposition attacks. 

Published : Mar 31, 2024 20:39 IST - 7 MINS READ

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik felicitating Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his arrival at Chandikhole to launch development projects worth over Rs.19,600 crore, on March 5.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik felicitating Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his arrival at Chandikhole to launch development projects worth over Rs.19,600 crore, on March 5. | Photo Credit: ANI

Odisha’s Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo Naveen Patnaik is all set to create history by becoming India’s longest-serving Chief Minister. As the State gears up for a four-phase election (May 13, 20, 25, and June 1) for both the Assembly (147 seats) and the Lok Sabha (21 seats), the BJD, with welfare schemes, the undiminished popularity of Patnaik, and organisational strength at the grassroots, has a clear edge over its nearest rival, the BJP. In spite of its political gains over the past five years, the BJP comes a distant second, and the Congress brings up the rear.

The BJD has been in power for 24 years now. Yet it has been able to keep anti-incumbency at bay, largely thanks to Patnaik’s popularity among the masses. Far-reaching schemes such as Mission Shakti, with over 70 lakh women beneficiaries; the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana, ensuring healthcare to nearly 4 crore people; the Kalia Yojana, with over 64 lakh beneficiaries in the agricultural sector; and the Madhubabu Pension Yojana for the elderly, to name a few, have ensured it a dedicated vote base.

Also Read | V.K. Pandian: Odisha’s Chief Minister-in-waiting?

Over the past one year, the BJD embarked on an extensive grievance redressal exercise, with the State administration and the ruling party reaching out to every block and constituency. Patnaik’s government has also worked on bolstering Brand Odisha through massive infrastructure projects and establishing state-of-the-art sports facilities. It is one of the BJD’s boasts that Odisha has played host to two editions of World Cup Hockey, in 2018 and 2023.

Patnaik’s soft Hindutva neutralises BJP’s aggressive religious rhetoric

Patnaik’s brand of soft Hindutva effectively neutralises the BJP’s more aggressive religious rhetoric. Although the BJP prudently switched its usual “Jai Shree Ram” chant to “Jai Jagannath” in Odisha, it really has nothing in its arsenal to counter the State government’s drive to renovate temples or the much-publicised “heritage corridor” around Puri’s Jagannath temple. Notwithstanding rumblings about joblessness and poverty, the majority seems averse to the idea of any other government as long as Patnaik is at the helm.

Surendra Routh, a small farmer in Khurda, told Frontline: “As long as Naveen Patnaik is around, nobody can take Odisha away from the BJD. He is linked intrinsically with our lives.” According to V.K. Pandian, an ex-IAS officer who joined the BJD and is now widely considered Patnaik’s chosen successor, people do not see Patnaik as a political leader but as someone who is there to serve them.

Ironically, as the veteran political observer Rabi Das pointed out, Patnaik is the BJD’s biggest asset and its biggest weakness. “The fact that Naveen Patnaik is old and ailing and there is no second-rung leadership to take over the reins of the party after him, is one of the biggest challenges the BJD is facing,” he told Frontline. For some time now, Patnaik’s public appearances have been few and far between. But his presence in the State’s sociopolitical life remains as strong as ever, thanks to Pandian’s efficient implementation of his schemes. In fact, both within the BJD and outside, Pandian represents the Chief Minister. The rise of Pandian, from Tamil Nadu, has left the BJD’s claim of being a party that upholds Odia asmita (self-respect), open to attack from the opposition. The BJP and the Congress keep referring to Pandian’s Tamil origin as an affront to Odia pride.

There is simmering discontent about it within the BJD too. In recent times, with the BJD poised to return to power for a sixth consecutive term, several senior party leaders, including sitting MPs and MLAs, have defected to the BJP. Former BJD MLA from Gopalpur, Pradeep Panigrahi, and six-time MP Bhartruhari Mahtab, have both joined the BJP, expressing dissatisfaction with Pandian running the party.

  • Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s popularity remains undiminished in Odisha, where the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections will be held simultaneously.
  • There are however rumblings in the party over his choice of successor and his political opponents are not missing their chance to attack him over it.
  • The BJD is set to return to power in the State, but Odisha’s voting pattern has shown in the past that while it wants the BJD in the State it is not averse to the BJP remaining at the helm in the Centre.

Speculation about BJD-BJP alliance

For weeks before the election dates were declared, the main speculation in political circles was about a possible BJD-BJP alliance, stoked by the evident bonhomie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Patnaik. With Modi himself endorsing his mitra Patnaik’s popularity by calling him a lokpriya Chief Minister, the BJP was left with little ammunition against the BJD. While Modi attacked the Congress and the INDIA grouping (of which Patnaik is not a part), he spared the BJD.

Political analysts struggled to explain why the ruling party and its main opponent might be thinking of an alliance. The BJD clearly did not need a tie-up with any party to return to power, and the BJP stood to lose credibility and opposition space if it joined forces with the BJD.

The explanation put forward by Pandian at a recent media conclave was not convincing. “There are some things beyond politics…. Two great leaders wanting to come together for a greater cause,” he said. But he also said that “BJD does not need the BJP to form the government in the State, and the BJP may not need the BJD’s help to return to power at the Centre”.

The alliance negotiations eventually fell through, but not before reinvigorating the flagging spirits of the Congress. After languishing in third position, there had suddenly emerged a possibility for it to become the main opposition. It was the first to release an election manifesto, announcing a slew of sops and schemes to counter the BJD’s yojanas.

The pattern in how Odisha votes

The BJP is well aware that it is not organisationally strong enough to defeat the BJD. However, in the last seven years, the increase in its vote share has been concomitant with the decline of the Congress. The BJP’s watershed moment came in the 2017 panchayat elections, when it won 297 (up from 36) of the 846 zilla parishad zones that went to the polls.

Two years later, it surged ahead of the Congress, winning 23 of the 147 Assembly seats and 8 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats. The BJD’s tally in seats came down to 12 (from 20 in 2014) in the 2019 general election, although its vote share fell by just 1.3 per cent. And in the Assembly it won 112 seats.

At the Assembly level, the Congress’ vote share fell by around 9.6 per cent in 2019, and the BJP’s increased by around 14.5 per cent. At the Lok Sabha level, the BJP’s vote share at 38.4 per cent had jumped by 16.9 per cent, while the Congress’ fell by 12.2 per cent.

Also Read | The skill story: Odisha shows the way under CM Naveen Patnaik

The BJD’s support base remained intact at the Assembly level. The electorate showed that while it wanted the BJD in the State, it was not averse to the BJP remaining in the Centre.

However, in the 2022 panchayat elections, the BJD stamped its dominance in rural Odisha by winning 766 of the 852 zilla parishad zones while the BJP and Congress could only manage 42 and 37 zilla parishad zones, respectively.

It will not be surprising if Odisha once again votes differently for the Assembly and the Lok Sabha. However, this time the BJD may feel a bit more of the anti-incumbency sting, with the opposition parties finding issues not just restricted to development and corruption, but also those related to Odia pride.

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