Keeping BJP at Arm's Length, Naveen Patnaik Announces Candidates for RS Polls

Patnaik's support for the BJP nominee in the last Rajya Sabha election had created an impression that he was too eager to please the government at the Centre. Not this time.

Bhubaneswar: Setting all speculations about a ‘deal’ with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to rest, Odisha chief minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president, Naveen Patnaik has announced the names of his party candidates for all the four Rajya Sabha seats from Odisha going to the polls on March 26.

Political circles in the state had been abuzz with talk of a tacit understanding between BJD and central BJP leadership and the likelihood of Patnaik gifting at least one of the four seats to the saffron party like he did last year when his party openly backed the candidature of former bureaucrat and BJP nominee, Ashwini Vaishnav and sent him to the upper house even though the regional party could have easily won all the three seats at stake in those elections.

Patnaik, who had then said that his party had supported Vaishnav on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah’s request, is seen to be moving close to the BJP after he supported the NDA government on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the scrapping of Article 370, both highly controversial issues. The speculation with regard to a Rajya Sabha ‘deal’ had been fuelled by the growing bonhomie between Patnaik and PM Modi, who has studiously avoided criticising the Odisha chief minister even though BJP and BJD happen to be rivals in the state.

Last month, when Shah addressed a pro-CAA rally in Bhubaneswar after chairing the 24th meeting of the eastern zonal council in the city he refrained from attacking Patnaik. Not only that, but he also attended the lunch hosted by Patnaik at Naveen Nivas for the leaders attending the council meeting, triggering speculation that he had reached a bargain with the Odisha strongman about sending a BJP leader to the Rajya Sabha from the state for the March 26 polls.

Also read: Odisha: Why Naveen Patnaik Abandoned Policy of Equidistance and Supported CAA

However, belying all such speculation, Patnaik, on Saturday, announced the names of minority community leader Munna Khan, self-help group activist and backward community representative Mamata Mahanta, policy strategist Sujeet Kumar and trade union leader, Subash Singh.

Patnaik, as was his wont, has retained the element of surprise in this election, dashing the hopes of known aspirants and denying nominations to high profile leaders. At the same time, he has rewarded hard work and loyalty while ensuring regional balance. The selection also reflects his concern for women and minorities.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. Photo: PTI

While Mamata Mahanta, a worker from the backward Kudumi community, has been rewarded for her hard work, Munna Khan, who was an advisor to the SC/ST development and minority affairs department and happens to be the nephew of Congress veteran, Habibullah Khan, reaps the benefit of his loyalty to the chief minister. As the film star-turned-politician himself admitted, “I have been associated with the Biju Pariwar for a long time. I have always carried out the tasks assigned to me by the party. I am happy that my hard work has been recognised.”

Mahanta, on the other hand, expressed her gratitude to the chief minister for not only sending a strong message about women’s empowerment through her selection but also for giving representation to someone from the backward Kudumi community. Unlike her, Sujeet Kumar, Patnaik’s third pick for the Rajya Sabha, happens to be a policy strategist with degrees from Oxford and Harvard universities. Playing the role of advisor, special development councils, he had been looking after BJD’s organisational work in backward Kalahandi and Nuapada districts.

On the other hand, Subash Singh, who quit the CPI(M) in 2013 to join the BJD, is a popular labour union leader who has been working hard to strengthen the party’s base among the labour class. He is also considered to be close to the powerful panchayati raj minister Pratap Jena and was heading the Odisha Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board until recently.

Also read: Protests Across Odisha Over Delhi Riots, Amit Shah Blames Opposition for Violence

The other significant aspect of Patnaik’s selection is that he has given representation to leaders from almost all parts of the state. While Munna Khan hails from the southern region (Nabarangpur), Mamata comes from North Odisha (Mayurbhanj) and Singh and Kumar represent coastal (Cuttack) and western region (Kalahandi) respectively. There has been no attempt to accommodate candidates defeated in the last elections as was being speculated in certain quarters and among known aspirants who had been refused a nomination, only former Berhampur MLA Ramesh Chandra Chyau Patnaik has been rehabilitated as chairman of Odisha Building & Other Construction Workers Welfare Board. He had been denied the party ticket from Berhampur last time.

Of all the four nominations, the selection of Khan has acquired a special significance as it comes in the wake of widespread criticism against Patnaik’s party for extending support to the controversial CAA which had triggered protests in the state. In the wake of demonstrations against the chief minister in several parts of the state, he had sought to assuage the anxieties amongst minorities by assuring them that he would not allow the National Citizenship Register (NCR) to take place in Odisha.

Hence, the selection of Khan is seen as a part of a well-planned strategy to defend BJD’s secular credentials and retain its Muslim vote-bank. It may be recalled that last year Patnaik had sent BJD spokesperson Sasmit Patra, a Christian, to the Rajya Sabha. “He obviously wants to create the impression that he stands for the minorities, especially the Muslims. But his secular credentials have already been sullied by his support for CAA and legislations like the triple talaq bill,” former Congress MLA Lalatendu Mohapatra said.

Naveen Patnaik during a roadshow. Photo: Facebook

While BJD general secretary, Bijay Nayak asserted that Patnaik had inherited the values of secularism from his father Biju Patnaik and it has always been reflected in his actions, well known political analyst and former vice-chancellor of Berhampur University professor Jayanta Kumar Mohapatra said that by announcing his party candidates for all the four Rajya Sabha seats falling vacant in the state, the chief minister has sent out a clear message that he was not under any kind of pressure to oblige the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre which lacks a majority in the upper house.

Also read: Upcoming Rajya Sabha Polls to See Unusually Tight Contest Between BJP, Opposition

“His support for the BJP nominee in the last Rajya Sabha election had created an impression that he was too eager to please the government at the Centre. This had led to all kinds of speculations. With this announcement, he has put an end to such speculations. Secondly, the chief minister appears to have realised that BJP being his party’s main political adversary in the state, he cannot afford to be unnecessarily generous towards it. It could dent the morale of his own party cadres,” said Mohapatra.

On the other hand, BJP Lok Sabha member from Bargarh Suresh Pujari said that the BJD, with its 113 MLAs in the 147-member Odisha assembly, could win three Rajya Sabha seats easily but did not have the required numbers to win the fourth seat on the strength of first preference votes. “The focus during the election will be on whether fair play is observed or not. The chief minister should ideally have consulted the BJP and civil society members to evolve a consensus on the fourth seat,” he stated adding that BJP parliamentary board would take a decision on the polls.

As it is, if all the 147 MLAs cast their votes each candidate will require 30 first preference votes to win. While BJD can easily get three of its candidates elected it will be left with 23 surplus first preference votes which would not be enough for the fourth candidate. The BJP with 23 MLAs, too, has the same number of first preference votes while the Congress has nine MLAs in the assembly and the CPI(M) has one. The house has only one independent MLA.

Though no one is willing to go on record for obvious reasons, sources have said there was a fair chance that the Congress and CPI(M) would abstain from voting and the lone independent MLA would opt for the BJD. That would ensure the victory of all the four BJD candidates.