Bhubaneswar: Elections are in the air already but Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems curiously shy of taking on Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, triggering speculation that the BJP looks upon the latter as a potential ally who could bail it out of a tight post-poll scenario.
The BJP experienced setbacks in the recent state assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh, while the broad contours of a Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance are emerging in Uttar Pradesh, politically the most crucial state for the BJP.
The party, it appears, is being extra-cautious in dealing with regional satraps like Patnaik, who is well entrenched in his state. Besides, there is widespread speculation about Modi contesting from Puri, Odisha’s most famous pilgrimage town, like UP’s Varanasi which the prime minister currently represents in the Lok Sabha.
The speculation with regard to Modi’s candidature from Puri has been fuelled by state BJP leaders like Pradip Purohit. The Padampur MLA feels that the move would boost the party’s prospects in a state which figures prominently in its plans for the upcoming poll battle. “Puri has a special place in his heart. I am 90% certain of Modi ji contesting from there. It would be a big morale booster for state leaders and brighten our prospects in the elections,” said Purohit.
Though Purohit’s enthusiasm on the issue is not shared by leaders like state BJP president Basant Panda, who maintains that any decision with regard to Modi’s candidature would be taken by the party’s central parliamentary board, the speculation is getting stronger with each passing day. Even if remotely true, it explains, in combination with other factors like a tight post-poll scenario, why Modi is reluctant to launch a direct attack on the Odisha chief minister.
Pulling his punches
Both at his Khurda rally on December 24 last year and the Baripada rally on January 5, the PM, as if deliberately, refrained from naming the chief minister and threw only occasional barbs at his government. While he talked of corruption at Khurda, he raised the issue of women’s security in the context of the Pipli gang-rape verdict at Baripada. On both occasions, he looked like a general donning the combat gear, but unwilling to get into the thick of battle.
Instead, the better part of his Baripada speech was devoted to castigating the Congress, especially in the context of the AugustaWestland helicopter deal with “Mama Michel” at its centre. But he spared Patnaik, who held his own show at Puri the same day and announced interest free loans up to Rs 3 lakh for women self help groups (WSHGs) in an apparent bid to steal the Modi’s thunder.
Considering that it is quite unlike Modi to pull his punches, it is obvious that he has deliberately toned down his aggression towards the Odisha chief minister who, he thinks, can be a useful future ally for the BJP.
Patnaik, despite his avowed policy of maintaining equi-distance from the Congress and the BJP, has shown a lot of flexibility in the past.
Patnaik’s support at crucial junctures
He supported the NDA government at crucial junctures such as helping pass the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill. In the 2017 presidential polls, the party supported Ram Nath Kovind and Harivansh for the post of Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson, making it an almost one-sided contest for the NDA. The BJD also staged a convenient walk out during the no-trust vote against the Modi government last July.
With only a thin line dividing Patnaik’s political flexibility from expediency, his decisions often leave not just political observers but even his own party leaders confused though very few would dare admit it. For example, while the party was with the NDA on the upper caste quota Bill and would support the triple talaq Bill with a few amendments, its Bolangir MP Kalikesh Narain Singh Deo was critical of the government on the Rafale deal. The young MP raised questions of “procedure, lost employment and beneficiary selection” with regard to the deal, obviously reflecting the party line.
The BJD has also been vocal in its criticism of the Modi government for not accepting the demand to hike the minimum support price (MSP) of paddy and not implementing the Swaminathan commission report. The party on January 8 organised a sit-in at Delhi’s Talkatora stadium over these issues. Later talking to the media, Patnaik once again reiterated his demand to grant fiscal autonomy to the state.
Patnaik, thus, appears to be supporting and opposing the Modi government in turns, making it difficult to read his mind. BJD leaders, however, argue that the apparent dichotomy is aimed at protecting the state’s interests. “We are a regional party and we must do everything to safeguard the interests of Odisha. This is the sole criterion for us in deciding our stand on any issue. No wonder it varies from case to case,” said BJD secretary Bijay Nayak.
Distances from Mahagathbandhan
But this also offers hope to the BJP that Patnaik can still be brought around to supporting the party if push comes to shove in a post-poll scenario. The other good news for the saffron party is that Patnaik has emphatically distanced himself from the efforts to form a Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) against the BJP. “I want to clarify that as far as the Mahagathbandhan is concerned, the Biju Janata Dal is not a part of it,” he said in Bhubaneswar on January 9.
Significantly, even the chief minister’s response to his Telengana counterpart K. Chandrashekhar Rao’s proposal to forge an alliance of regional parties has been muted. Following their meeting in Bhubaneswar last December, all that Patnaik said was that they had discussed “several things including furthering the friendship of like-minded parties”.
Political observers believe that Patnaik, who needs Central help to keep his welfare schemes going, is keeping his options open. “It is not just a question of Central funds. The fact that some of his party leaders are under the CBI lens in connection with the chit fund scam also must be weighing on his mind. He needs Modi just as much as Modi needs him,” said professor Anand Mishra, who has been watching state politics closely.
Patnaik, in all probability, will show his cards only after the election results are out.