In Odisha, Signs of Renewed Bonhomie Between BJD and BJP

Naveen Patnaik's support for Ashwini Vaishnav hints at a mending of ties, but the impact of Centre granting an extension to the Polavaram project, which Odisha has consistently opposed, is yet to be seen.

Bhubaneswar: They vigorously competed during the simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly polls in Odisha. But arch political rivals, Biju Janata Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party, appear to be coming close in the wake of the elections that saw BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik becoming the chief minister for a record fifth term and the saffron party improving its Lok Sabha tally in the state to eight from just one seat in 2014.

The renewed bonhomie between the two parties, which had parted ways in 2009 after ruling the state in tandem for more than nine years, was clearly visible last week when Patnaik announced his party’s support for Ashwini Vaishnav, a former Odisha cadre IAS officer, as a Rajya Sabha candidate following a request from Modi and Amit Shah. The 1994-batch officer, who had served as private secretary to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, joined the BJP soon after the announcement.

By-polls were held for three Rajya Sabha seats which had fallen vacant following the election of three Upper House members from Odisha – P.K. Deb, Achyuta Samanta and Soumya Ranjan Patnaik – to the Lok Sabha and the state assembly. While the chief minister fielded former principal accountant general and BJD IT cell head Amar Patnaik and party spokesperson Sasmit Patra on two of these seats, he extended support to Vaishnav on the third – even though his party, which enjoys a brute majority in the state assembly with 112 seats, could have easily won all. No wonder then that all three candidates have been elected unopposed to the Rajya Sabha.

Patnaik has, in fact, made a big sacrifice by accommodating Vaishnav on the seat vacated by Soumya Ranjan Patnaik, who still had five years left in the Rajya Sabha. While Amar, who has been elected against the vacancy caused by Samanta, would also enjoy a five-year term, Patra, who steps into the Upper House in place of Deb, will only have a three-year term.

Ashwini Vaishnav joins the BJP in the presence of the party’s Odisha unit president Basant Panda. Photo: Twitter

While the Congress has questioned BJD’s support for Vaishnav, who had come into the limelight as an administrator during his stint as the collector of Balasore in 1999 when a super-cyclone had hit Odisha’s coast, a section of leaders from Patnaik’s party are also unhappy at the decision – though none would speak openly against it for obvious reasons. For the record, BJD general secretary, Bijay Nayak said that the chief minister had taken the decision in the larger interest of the state. On his part, senior BJP leader and former MLA, Pradip Purohit welcomed the chief minister’s move saying that it would serve Odisha’s interest.

Sources said that Vaishnav’s candidature was discussed when Patnaik met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on June 11. While Odisha chief minister raised issues like special category status and central assistance for the cyclone-ravaged state, Modi is believed to have sought BJD’s cooperation with his party in the parliament, especially in the Rajya Sabha. He sought to seal the renewed friendship with the BJD by asking for the regional party’s support for Vaishnav, who, apart from his stint in Odisha, had also served as private secretary to Vajpayee under whom Patnaik had worked as a Union minister.

Also read: BJP in Odisha Lacks the Organisational Strength to Realise Its Ambitions

Political observers like professor Anand Mishra argue that compulsions of realpolitik are dictating the rapprochement between BJD and BJP who have fought three elections separately since 2009. “The prime minister would like to have the BJD as an ally as the NDA still does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha. The regional party has bailed out the NDA in the past. On the other hand, Patnaik needs generous assistance from the Centre to rebuild the state which was recently battered by Cyclone Fani. He is also pushing for special category status for Odisha,” said Mishra.

Patnaik’s party has sided with the BJP on several occasions in the past despite its professed policy of maintaining distance from the saffron party as well as the Congress. While it bailed out the NDA government when it was desperately scouting for allies to get the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2015 passed in the Rajya Sabha, it also voted with the BJP to elect Ram Nath Kovind as the president. Last year, it had staged a convenient walk out as the Modi government faced a no-trust motion in the Lok Sabha.

Ruling BJD leaders have sought to justify this in the name of pragmatism, asserting that their party has always taken a stand that best suits the interests of Odisha. “Our stand varies from issue to issue depending on what would best serve the interest of the state,” said party general secretary Bijay Nayak.

However, the proverbial fly in the ointment for this renewed friendship between BJD and BJP has been the NDA government’s decision to grant a two-year extension for the construction of Polavaram multi-purpose project in Andhra Pradesh, which the Odisha government has been opposing tooth and nail as it threatens to submerge several tribal villages in Malkangiri district.

Also read: Glorifying the Polavaram Dam, or How Indian Politicians Prioritise Myths Over Local Realities

In 2011, the then UPA government had asked Andhra Pradesh to stop the construction citing irregularities. But in 2014, the NDA government declared Polavaram a national project and the ‘stop work order’ issued by the UPA was kept in abeyance to allow construction. Now a two-year extension has been granted by keeping the ‘stop work order’ in abeyance once again.

The step, obviously taken under pressure from the newly-elected Andhra chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy, who is being viewed by the BJP as an ally, would help expedite the project that would irrigate nearly three lakh hectares of land in the neighbouring state while generating hydropower with an installed capacity of 960 MW.

However, Odisha, which had moved the Supreme Court over the issue, has been demanding stoppage of all work on the project. In a letter to the Centre last year, chief minister Patnaik had said: “If the project is completed before the resolution of all the pending issues, then it will lead to a situation which will permanently affect a large number of tribal people in Odisha.”

Articulating BJD’s stand on the latest move by the Union environment ministry on Polavaram, Nayak lashed out at the NDA government for granting work extension to Andhra on the project while the matter is still pending in the apex court. “It is regrettable,” said the leader, but he refused to speculate on the kind of impact this could have on the BJP-BJD relations.