The Realpolitik of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik

There is a growing feeling that Patnaik stands to gain by treating both the BJP and Congress as equal enemies

Bhubaneswar: Elections are nearing and the air is getting thick with talk of new political combinations and permutations. Odisha chief minister, Naveen Patnaik – who is seeking a record fifth term in office in 2019 – continues to stick to his policy of maintaining equidistance from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Patnaik was conspicuous by his absence at the swearing-in ceremony of Karnataka chief minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy in May, which saw a huge gathering of anti-BJP leaders. He also kept away from the meeting hosted in Delhi last month by Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, in a bid to create a joint front of parties against the BJP.

The Odisha chief minister, who also happens to be the president of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) – the state’s most successful regional outfit so far – has been equally unenthusiastic about cobbling together a front of major regional parties. The much awaited talks between him and Telangana chief minister, K. Chandrashekahar Rao – who has mooted the idea of a ‘Third Front’ with a focus on anti-BJP and anti-Congress regional parties – did not materialise with Patnaik demonstrating little interest in KCR’s proposal.

While maintaining equal distance from the BJP and Congress suits Patnaik’s politics, it would be wrong to interpret this as a policy of splendid isolation – one which no chief minister in a federal country like India can afford to follow. The truth is that he himself has been conducting his politics in a flexible manner and aligning with the BJP on several occasions, even though his alliance with the saffron party in the state broke way back in 2009.

Also read: Ex-BJP Leaders Could Be Assets for the BJD or Congress in Odisha

For instance, Patnaik’s BJD backed the controversial Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2015 helping the NDA get it passed in the Rajya Sabha. Similarly, he was among the first chief ministers to welcome demonetisation – a move slammed by the Congress and several other parties. Odisha’s chief minister was also among the few regional satraps to extend support to the controversial Goods and Services Tax (GST) when it faced flak across the country.

There are also other instances of BJD favouring the BJP and the NDA in recent times, like its support for Ram Nath Kovind during last year’s presidential polls. In July this year, the regional party staged a convenient walk-out during the no-confidence motion debate in the Lok Sabha, thus making things easy for the NDA.

While the Congress has slammed this political dichotomy – accusing it of toeing a soft line towards its erstwhile ally because of the ongoing CBI investigation into the chit fund scam – Patnaik’s party finds its stand completely justified. “ Our stand in all these matters has been issue based and we have always acted keeping the state’s interest in mind,” says Bijay Nayak, secretary, Biju Janata Dal.

Pointing out that had the chief minister been trying to curry favours with the prime minister, Nayak said that he would have refrained from attacking the BJP on issues like the Mahanadi water sharing dispute and special category state status for Odisha. “ But that is not the case. Our chief minister has been openly critical of the BJP and its leadership on these issues,” adds Nayak.

Naveen Patnaik meeting with Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Patnaik seems to have a flexible policy towards the BJP – attacking and supporting it in turns with an eye to political gains. If he has ratcheted-up his attack on the saffron outfit over Mahanadi and the demand for special category status for Odisha, it is because he realises that both are highly emotive issues that need to be politically encashed in an election year.

Hence, the BJD recently organised a Mahanadi yatra along the banks of the river. With public meetings in around 15 districts, the sole target was the BJP and the prime minister – whom it accused of siding with the then BJP government in Chhattisgarh – which unilaterally constructed dams and barrages upstream of the river, therefore, adversely affecting its flow on the Odisha side.

As for the issue of special category status, Patnaik has made it amply clear that it would be one of the major planks of his party in the general elections. “We have been fighting for the special category tag ever since we came to power in 2000 – when we had a coalition government  with the BJP. Successive governments at the Centre have denied us this privilege, but we remain determined to fight on,” says Nayak who remains confident about the people backing Patnaik once again in 2019.

Also read: ‘Oh! I’ve Got a Problem’: How Naveen Patnaik Sizes People Up

Patnaik seems to have read the popular pulse quite well. While he has been whipping up popular sentiments on the Mahanadi and special category status issue, he is launching one welfare scheme after another to keep voters on his side. If he has given the landless land pattas through the “Mo Jami-Mo Diha” scheme, the elderly have been receiving pensions courtesy the Madhu Babu Pension scheme. If there is Mission Shakti to take care of women, the destitute and the homeless are being provided with food day and night for just five rupees at Aadhar centres spread across the state.

While his rice at one rupee per kg continues to be as popular as ever, he has sought to trump the Centre’s Ayushman Bharat scheme with his own ‘Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana‘  – despite criticism from Modi and BJP chief, Amit Shah. As the war of words between the BJP and BJD on these issues escalates ahead, there is a growing feeling that Patnaik stands to gain by treating both, the BJP and Congress as equal enemies.

“Congress is a natural enemy for Patnaik because his BJD stands on the foundation of ‘anti-Congressism’. As for his party’s past alliance with [the] BJP, it had to collapse because of their ideological divergence. They were a mismatch. Going it alone suits the chief minister who has been conducting his politics cleverly – changing his stand from case to case,” explains professor Anand Mishra, a keen Odisha watcher.

As things stand today, that seems to be Patnaik’s political strategy.