Interview | Anti-Incumbency, Not BJP or Congress, Main Challenge for BJD in Odisha

In conversation with chief spokesperson of the Biju Janata Dal, Pratap Keshari Deb.

Bhubaneswar: The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government, led by Naveen Patnaik, has ruled Odisha uninterrupted for the last 19 years. It has repeatedly claimed to follow a policy of equidistance from both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress.

This year, Odisha will have simultaneous assembly and parliamentary polls. The BJD has focused strictly on state-specific issues, distancing itself from all national debates.

How is the BJD planning to battle anti-incumbency? Where will it go in case of a hung parliament? Who does it consider its main opponent in the state?

The Wire sat down with the chief spokesperson of the BJD, Pratap Keshari Deb, for a discussion on all these issues. Deb has been a member of the Rajya Sabha since May 2017, but says he hopes to return to Odisha as a candidate for the state assembly. He has earlier represented the Aul assembly constituency in Kendrapara.

Pratap Keshari Deb. Credit: Facebook/Pratap Keshari Deb

What do you think are the BJD’s prospects in the upcoming elections?

We are hoping that this time also we will make a clean sweep both in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections.

But your party will also face anti-incumbency. After all, BJD has been in power for 19 years now.

Yes, I agree with you 100%, the main adversary in the election we will be facing is anti-incumbency. As far as organisational strength and election preparedness is concerned, we are far ahead of both the BJP and Congress party put together, and other smaller parties also. We have been working on this thing for 1.5 years now.

Who does the BJD consider its main opposition, Congress or BJP?

We consider the anti-incumbency factor to be the biggest challenge for us. We will be judged by what we have done in meeting our poll promises, our administration and the approachability of our leaders.

But there is a competition between the Congress and BJP to emerge as the main opposition in Odisha.

Yes and no. You are correct that in the last five years, BJP saw a remarkable upswing, but now like everybody in the country, people of Odisha also started seeing through the prime minister himself. The 856 seats that went to zila parishad polls, we won about 480, BJP around 296 to 300 and Congress went down to about say 60 odd. But it was a three-tier elections. No one reported that properly. Out of the panchayat samiti’s 314 blocks, we won 220 in about 7,000-odd panchayats.

Recently Rahul Gandhi said that BJD government was remote-controlled by the BJP. BJD has, in fact, supported the Union government on crucial legislations and debates.

The BJP has been accusing us of being partners with the Congress and the Congress has been accusing us being partners with the BJP. We have only extended issue-based support to the Union government on occasion, not because of any ideological affiliation.

Also read: Odisha Opposition Parties Offer Written Promises In Bid to Trump BJD

But why is the BJD giving confusing signals to the national players?

We are not giving anybody any confusing signals, we are only saying whatever is suiting us. We have maintained right from 2009, we have a policy of equidistance (from both the parties). We have always openly said that we are an original outfit confined to the borders of Odisha. Whatever happens nationally in the parliament, whatever suits our state’s polity, economy and the social setup, we do accordingly. This has been a very clear-cut principle for the last ten years. I think those who are saying we are giving mixed signals are confused themselves.

As a politician who knows the ground, which party do you think will pose the main challenge to the Naveen Patnaik?

As of today, both (the Congress and BJP) are evenly placed. Now, we may see multiple leaders – across all parties – crossing over to other side. Ticket selection will be a crucial thing. The BJD will entirely rely on chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s selections. This is not the case with the BJP, which will loop in Delhi’s leadership to take the final call.

Congress will most likely go for completely new faces, as it is revamping its organisation in the state.

What is the BJD looking for in its candidates?

I can’t speak much about that in the media, but yes we have got our own problems and our own check and balances.

Naveen Patnaik’s popularity seems high, but not the party’s MLAs.

The party president (Naveen Patnaik) will take the decision on our candidates.

Why is the BJD suddenly stressing on creating a new Odia identity? We haven’t seen this before. Siddaramaiah in Karnataka did the same. Are you taking a similar route?

That is the shift on which we are working on. That is why the BJD was created in the first place. All regional parties for the last 30 years have only been toeing the line of one of the Central parties. We want to focus only on Odisha.

When I was a student in Delhi in 1989, people used ask me, where are you from? When I said Odisha, they used to ask where is Odisha. Odisha always meant Lord Jagannath and Konark Sun Temple, nothing else.  So there was an identity crisis for Odias right from independence.

Even if you see the history books, nowhere in the independence struggle have Odisha or Odia freedom fighters been highlighted. If we look at the history books of NCERT, except for one or two ancient historical monuments, nothing else is written about medieval Odisha.

For us, Odia identity is the first [identity].

What we are striving for is recognition, be it in the field of sports, business, academics, agriculture or any other field. We are a part of India and a community. We have our own ancient independent identity and an ancient vibrant culture, which people have just brushed aside. So now, in these 19 years, I can proudly say wherever we go in India, Odisha is immediately recognised.

People know it because of many facets like agricultural production, world-class sports events, healthcare standards and reducing poverty substantially. All sectors have improved in the last 19 years.

The state still lacks industrialisation.

When we came to power, the plan to improve Odisha’s industrialisation existed only on a CD.  Today Odisha has about 12 functional industrial units. There is substantial growth in the manufacturing sector. There was initially one small hub (Rourkela), now you go to Sambalpur Jharsuguda, Angul, you will not recognise these places. Those are the best examples for anybody to see. The mining sector is also very vibrant.

Also read: In Odisha, BJP Seems to Have Little Clue on How to Take on the Ruling BJD

Suddenly before elections, your government has introduced a slew of welfare programmes. Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) – a farmers’ welfare scheme – is a top example.

I would like to rectify that KALIA is not a scheme introduced for elections, like the government of India is doing and Congress is declaring. KALIA is the culmination of many small steps taken earlier for the benefits of the farmers. We categorically mentioned that once we come to power, we will give farmers loans at 1% interest, which we implemented. Then we will introduce technology in the sector, a separate cabinet for agriculture, we separated the budget for agriculture and various other productive steps for the welfare of farmers to increase their income and productivity. These finally resulted in the form of KALIA.

Most of the agriculture here is rain-fed. The state government has not done enough to plan irrigation projects.

No, the prime minister went wrong when he said that. The chief minister wrote a letter to him soon after. We had promised 10 lakh hectares of irrigated land out of which we have completed about 8.2 lakh hectares, and will achieve our target soon.

We are also the first state government to identify sharecroppers and extend to them the benefits of government schemes.

What is your biggest achievement?

Our biggest achievement is the way we involved women in economic processes. We have about 30 lakh women self-help groups in the state today. That is the Naveen Patnaik government’s biggest strength. Women comprise 50% of the state’s population and no government has worked towards any tangible improvement in their lives like we have done.

Almost 40% of the state’s population are Adivasis. But the BJD has not given them enough representation.

If you look at our electoral performance in tribal-dominated regions, we have done much better than any other party. These regions used to be Congress’s bastion. People have voted for Naveen Patnaik not once but four times, and this is the indication that Naveen Patnaik has been able to reach every household in those areas.

The best part is that we have worked out a way to reach every family which is poor and landless. We see what their expenses are and what are they doing with the money they earn. With the Food Security Act, we have taken care of nutrition.

Then there are multiple welfare schemes like a comprehensive health care assurance model, the girl child scheme, maternity benefits for expecting (pregnant) women.

What we are doing is we are trying lessen the burden on the common man gradually.

The Centre has criticised Odisha for not contributing to the Ayushman Bharat health insurance scheme. The prime minister has accused Naveen Patnaik of trampling on federal principles.

The BJP cannot talk about federalism. They came to power with the slogan of cooperative federalism and the first thing they did was to crush federalism.

I will give you an example how they (the Centre) claim that they are giving more money to states. Odisha got more funds because of the 14th finance commission, which was made before this government came to power. It was rectified by the UPA government and not the NDA government. Let us get the facts clear first.

When NDA came to power, the 14th finance commission was implemented, but very cunningly in their public speeches they said Congress was giving one lakh and we are giving three lakhs. What they are hiding from the public is while the sharing patterns of various governments schemes were [90% Centre and 10% state, or 75%-25%, or 80%-20%], the NDA government has made 60-40 mandatory on all government schemes. On all government of India-sponsored schemes, the state has to pay 40% and Centre will pay 60%. If you add the implementation cost, it amounts to virtually [50-50].

On the one hand they say we have increased the money and the other hand you are asking to pay us more.

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

There are two major criticisms against BJD in Odisha: one is that Naveen Patnaik remains unapproachable and two, the bureaucracy has become unprecedentedly powerful under BJD.

This is a much-peddled and debated criticism in the media, but I think this is absolutely uncalled for. The implementation part of programmes is not done by the politicians but by the bureaucratic setup of the state. The politicians make and conceive policies, make rules and implement them with the help of bureaucracy.

Our only agenda is development. If we take the example of the KALIA scheme for farmers in Odisha, one must ask how do you implement it? The agriculture secretary, cooperative department secretary, supplier department secretary will implement it. They will provide the list, then go down to the block level, then accordingly people will apply and DBT (direct benefit transfer) will take place.

I would like to say, if the politicians and bureaucracy are working in tandem, it is a very good sign for democracy and a very good model of development for any state.

What about the chief minister’s inaccessibility?

It is absolutely baseless, whosoever wants to meet Naveen Patnaik can go any time and see him. He meets everybody.

Corruption in the chit fund scam has got your government a lot of flak.

Levelling charges of corruption at anyone is like throwing stone, but has anyone able to prove it so far?

Why is there no second line of leadership in the BJD?

Our organisation is vibrant and functioning. That is why we have one leader and in a democracy there will be some criticism – it is a part of democracy. But that does not mean the party has got problem. Even the Congress, BJP, TMC, Samajwadi Party, DMK, AIADMK are similar to the BJD as far as leadership is concerned. We welcome healthy criticism in a political organisation.

The assembly elections of Odisha will be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls. BJP claims that it will get 120 seats out of 147.

We are expecting to form the government with a good majority. As far as BJP is concerned, I don’t know where they got this figure but for all you know it may only be an election jumla. They are working with the media. We have our organisational roots across the state.

Congress, too, looks like it will give a tough fight.

Yes, Congress has been gaining at the expense of the BJP.

It is expected that a triangular contest will help the BJD.

That is for poll pundits like you to decide, I am concerned with our organisational strength, whether we have fulfilled our promises or not, and have we been humble enough or not.

In case of a hung parliament, where will BJD go? Recently Naveen Patnaik met Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, who is trying to forge a third front.

Until now, it’s issue-based support or opposition to the government – a policy of equidistance from both national parties. Let us see how the situation develops, saying something now will be preempting things. Let us wait for that moment to come – till that it’s all hard work and home work.

Could Naveen Patnaik throw in his hat for some Central position – say for the PM’s chair?

If that would have been the case, then he would not have come in the media and categorically said that we are following a policy of equidistance. It is premature to talk about it now.