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More Ally Than Enemy: BJP And BJD's Strange Connection in Odisha

BJD, which had risen to individual power by professing an avowed departure from communalism, has now been providing its full-fledged support to BJP.

The Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the ruling party in Odisha led by chief minister Naveen Patnaik, recently lent its support to the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019 (Reorganisation Bill), proposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Speaking for the BJD, Rajya Sabha MP Prasanna Acharya said, “Though we are a regional party, the nation comes first for us”.

Interestingly, this is not the BJP’s first proposal which has received support of the BJD. In the 2019 monsoon session of the parliament, bills proposing changes to the UAPA and the RTI Acts and criminalising triple talaq, all introduced by the BJP, were successfully passed with the support of the BJD, and other regional parties.

The relationship between the two parties, however, has been nothing less than acrimonious, as was displayed in the recently concluded Odisha state assembly elections in May 2019. The two parties had together formed the government in the state earlier.

A natural ally

In the latest Odisha state assembly elections, BJP, with frequent campaign trips to the state by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, emerged as the biggest threat to the sitting government, which had been in power for 19 years. Though BJP had aimed for a “double-engine” government, BJD emerged victorious with a comfortable majority. BJP followed as the main opposition.

The two parties were not always rivals. In 1997, Naveen Patnaik first entered the fray of electoral politics after the death of his father, Biju Patnaik, and emerged victorious in the by-election of the Aska constituency. A year later, when the Janata Dal was split, Naveen formed his own party and joined the Vajpayee-led BJP government, as Union Minister for Steel and Mines.

Naveen Patnaik. Credit: PTI

File image of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. Photo: PTI

This marked the political beginning for the new regional party BJD, which continues to rule Odisha until today. In 2000, BJD and BJP formed a coalition government in Odisha with Patnaik as the chief minister. Patnaik had fought three Lok Sabha polls in 1998, 1999 and 2004 and two assembly elections in 2000 and 2004, with the BJP. The BJP, thus, was considered a natural ally of the party.

The point of departure came in 2008 when right-wing extremists from Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal wreaked havoc in Kandhamal by burning hundreds of Christians after the death of their leader Lakshmananda Saraswati. Patnaik faced serious allegations of failing to protect the minority community.

Also read: We Must Not Forget Kandhamal, a Wound That Is Yet to Heal

Unable to contain the raging violence and an undaunted BJP which had resolved to call a statewide bandh on Christmas Day, Patnaik severed ties with the long-time coalition partner, clarifying his stand with the line, “every bone of mine is secular”.

In 2009, the two parties contested the polls separately, and the Patnaik-led BJD came to power with a thumping majority on its own. Patnaik stayed away from the United Progressive Alliance, which came to power in the Centre with Congress and its allies, thus marking the beginning of his policy of “equidistance” from both national formations, the UPA and the National Democratic Alliance.

Growing bonhomie

In a dubious turn of events after the 2019 elections, BJD has moved closer to its polltime sworn enemy. In the last session of the parliament, BJP passed legislations that were key to its core Hindutva ideology, such as those criminalising triple talaq and reorganising Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, with the support of BJD.

On the issue of Kashmir, the BJD did not raise a single concern over the militarisation of the region, and instead, stuck to the right wing rhetoric, when Prasanna Acharya rejoiced over “true independence”, highlighting the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits.

Union home minister Amit Shah delivers his speech on Jammu and Kashmir in the Rajya Sabha on August 5. Photo: Twitter/@ANI

BJD also made no attempts to point out the communal colour of the legislation criminalising triple talaq, and supported it to ensure the “equality of all women”. The criminalisation of triple talaq has been severely criticised for having the sole aim of bringing more Muslim men within the ambit of criminal law, especially because the Supreme Court had already nullified the practice.

Also watch: Here’s Why the Triple Talaq Bill Does Nothing for the Rights of Women

The BJD’s unquestioning support of this legislation beats hollow its own arguments on BJP being a communal force. Recently, BJD also nominated a BJP parliamentarian, Ashwini Vaishnav, a former bureaucrat who worked with Vajpayee, to the Rajya Sabha, ‘on the request of Prime Minister and the home minister’. Acceptance of this request by Patnaik clearly demonstrates a courteous relationship between the two parties.

Although Odisha has, by and large, been a communally peaceful state, a disturbing turn of events came about first in 1999, with the killing of Australian national, Graham Staines and his two sons for carrying out “missionary” activities “without consent”; and then with the 2008 Kandhamal riots.

This anti-Christian sentiment has only sharpened with the induction of Pratap Chandra Sarangi, a first-time parliamentarian from Balasore, into Modi’s cabinet. Though Sarangi has received significant attention in the national media for his “simplicity”, and was referred to as “Odisha’s Modi”, his fundamentalist position against minorities remains largely unknown. His role as the Bajrang Dal’s key aide during the Staines killing, his open call to support anti-romeo squads, and his militant position against cow-slaughter, all point towards the increasing volatility of the public sphere in Odisha.

Balasore MP Pratap Chandra Sarangi speaks in the Lok Sabha. Photo: YouTube

These political developments lay bare the intricate connections of Hindu majoritarianism across party lines. This is neither demonstrative of Patnaik’s erstwhile commitment to secular values, nor his policy of “equidistance”.

Weakening the federal structure

BJD’s support for BJP’s proposal on bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories raises several questions on Centre-state relations, especially given the Centre’s unilateral move of suspending all communication and heavily deploying military in the region. It is even more contentious in the light of the fact that BJD has consistently demanded special category status for Odisha.

As has been explored by media outlets in the aftermath of the announcement, BJP also circumvented constitutional requirements in arriving at its proposed solution for Jammu and Kashmir.

Further, this is the first time that an Indian state, whose people had enjoyed the freedom of full democratic participation, has been demoted to a Union territory. The BJP’s move also leaves unanswered several questions about the asymmetric distribution of power between different states, provided for in Articles 371- 371-J of the Constitution, which accord different rights and privileges to the northeastern states, and certain regions within Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. These constitutional provisions form an important feature of Indian federalism, by promising differential membership to multiple identities across the nation.

Regional parties like BJD have, unfortunately, supported this move, making individual states extremely vulnerable at the hands of the Central government. This sets a dangerous precedent for the nation, wherein regional parties deliberately refrain from countering the imposition of majoritarian ideas sold in the garb of a ‘national identity’.

An uncertain future?

Parliamentary democracy in India suffers due to an unhealthy nexus between different parties, and has essentially been reduced to an euphemism for the capture of power.

Naveen Patnaik at an election rally. Photo: Facebook

Arguably, one of the most compelling reasons for BJD’s unconditional support to BJP rests with the chit-fund scam, when in 2014, after Modi’s seizure of power, Naveen underwent one of the most powerful waves of corruption allegations.

A host of sitting Odisha assembly members, Lok Sabha MPs, including senior party office-bearers like Arun Sahoo, Pravat Tripathy, Pravat Biswal and Rabindra Kumar Jena were raided by CBI and questioned extensively. In some cases, they were imprisoned for long spells. This attack on the corruption-free and honest image of Patnaik, hurt BJD the most.

Congress has therefore alleged that the relationship between BJD and BJP is one of convenience, where one supports the other to get away from the legal and political implications of corruption charges.

Often, the role of opposition is curtailed for the gains of climbing the ladders of power, but this renders constitutional safety valves useless. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar had warned us about this long ago, when he said, “if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost for ever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood.”

Recent times have witnessed an erosion of rightful dissent, especially from the elected members of the political parties who are meant to stand as voices of difference and alternate ideas. The failure of BJD, as well as other regional parties, to stand up to majoritarian forces raises serious concerns about the future of the Indian parliamentary democracy.

Preeti Pratishruti Dash is a legal researcher from Odisha, where she completed her primary law degree. She is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School.

Abinash Dash Choudhury is an independent writer and activist currently pursuing postgraduate studies in Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.