Enemies make you stronger, allies make you weaker–Frank Herbert. This is the dictum which Naveen Patnaik has been following in Odisha since his decade and a half rule of one of India’s poorest State. He was elected the Party President of the Biju Janata Dal for the seventh successive term in February this year. During the swearing in ceremony, he announced a scheme of granting subsidised loan for students, his seventh sop this year, and his 50th in the last 15 years. Even though he is the most inaccessible chief minister, both for his party men and the citizens of the State, Naveen has created a popular perception that he is with the people. His universal appeal cuts across all barriers of region, caste and factions and he commands the unquestioned loyalty of every party member.
When he made a quiet entry in the State in 2000, he knew French better than Odia. He was a jet-setting bachelor, leading a luxurious life, with his interests in culture, literature and environment which took him many places in the world. He had written three books, one of which was edited by Jacqueline Onassis. He has written a book on the people of Bikaner and even on healing plants of India.
In his entire stint, Naveen has often made it clear that he has no desire to be either a king or a king maker at the national level. “I am happy to serve my people’ has been his liet-motif. The BJD is perhaps the only party in the nation which does not suffer from any anti-incumbency syndrome even after fifteen years of uninterrupted power; rather it has never looked stronger. Naveen Patnaik has demonstrated his political invincibility, be it the General elections, Panchayat polls, Civic bodies or Co-operatives. With both the mainstream parties at their doldrums, there is no alternate political force in the State.
Political analysts give various reasons for his stellar position, but the hard fact for him remaining in power is that the people of Odisha do not find any other leader with stature in the other two parties– the Congress or the BJP – in the entire State. Naveen, in truth has been ruling the State by sheer default.He has impressively succeeded in expanding his political hold over the State, its people and its future.
He has constantly maintained that his party the Biju Janata Dal believes in keeping equidistance from both the Congress and the BJP.
He has repeatedly reaffirmed his supremacy in the state politics by increasing his vote share and winning margins in every election held since he took over the reins. Every election result has indicated the BJD’s strong grass root support base among all sections of the society. The nay sayers accuse him and his party of taking Odisha to abysmal depths of poverty and maladministration, but give him the credit of mastering the art of winning elections. In the last parliamentary bye-elections held in Phulbani, his greenhorn candidate won with an impressive margin of 2.98 lakhs votes.
In poverty-stricken Odisha where deprivation rules and hunger is rampant, chief minister Naveen Patnaik has made it a habit to surprise his subjects with periodic sops. Naveen’s popularity among the poor masses (they constitute 65 per cent of the State’s population) is primarily because of the multitude of sops that take care of practically every stage of the poor man’s life – from cradle to death. Between the ‘Mamata Yojana’ providing incentives for expecting mothers to the ‘Harischandra Yojana’ which takes care of the funeral expenses of the dead, there are schemes of Re 1/kg rice, free school uniforms, bicycles and laptops for the students, free medicines, mosquito nets, widows and old age pensions, free umbrellas and blankets etc.
His most popular and ambitious dole was the Ahaar scheme launched in five towns including the steel city of Rourkela. Subsidised lunch was provided for the urban poor for just Rs 5 per plate. The voters lapped up the hot meal of rice and lentil, and Naveen swept the urban body poll, prompting the government to extend the sop to all 30 district headquarters of the state. Veteran politician and regular Naveen baiter, BJP’s Bijoy Mohapatra says, “it is a government of, by and for sops.”
Even though his populist measures have taken a heavy toll on the state exchequer, Naveen remains unfazed. His well-oiled party machine works in clockwork precision to ensure that the welfare measures reaches the last mile – and the last voter.
The Congress and the BJP have not learnt lessons from both the 2009 and 2014 general elections. With the correct electoral strategy, the regional party BJD had trumped the two national parties. Personally, Naveen finds it expedient to deal with these two parties at the centre, rather than confabulating with State level leaders. He enjoyed an excellent equation with Manmohan Singh, whose UPA did all to bail him out the mining and coal scam. Every Congress leader came calling embarrassed the local unit by showering praised in him and his governance.
The Modi government too seems to have followed in the footsteps of the Manmohan Singh. Amit Shah, on his maiden visit, had embarrassed the state BJP by refusing point blank to utter anything against Naveen, either at the public meeting or at the press conference. The bonhomie shown by Sushma Swaraj, Gadkari and Modi too had left the State leaders red faced.
The NDA seems to have bailed out Naveen from the ongoing CBI probe into the mega chit fund scam. It seemed the end of the road for the BJD, when almost the entire BJD topbrass was implicated in the scam. Prabhat Tripathy, a four-time MLA and senior leader of the BJD and Ramachandra Hansda, BJD MP from Mayurbhanj, went sent to jail, while as many as 11 ministers were under investigation for their role in the scam. In fact the probe had reached the doorsteps of Naveen Niwas, the CM’s residence, when his personal assistant Saroj Sahu was grilled by the CBI. The zealous CBI SP in Bhubaneswar was shunted out and the NDA did all to scuttle the appointment of Prakash Mishra, Naveen’s bête noire, from becoming CBI chief despite being the top contender for the post.
Under the NDA regime, like in the UPA regime, Naveen is once again having the best of both the worlds. While blaming the State’s precarious financial situation on ‘central neglect’, raising the issue of Polavaram dam, cuts in central funding for schemes, he enjoys the best of relations with top BJP leaders. His gentle arm-twisting had got him many extras from the Centre, be it the Railway Budget and the Smart City Tag.
Both the Congress and BJP are disheveled and demoralised. A series of defeats, frustration and disenchantment among the party rank and file and dearth of pan-Odisha leadership has eroded the strength of both the parties.
After the 2014 elections results, the then BJP state president K V Singhdeo had said, “We fail to understand how Modi wave could not be translated into votes in Odisha. We will think over it.” During his stint as the president, his oft quoted lines at rallies was the Naveen Patnaik would soon end up in ‘the cell next to Madhu Koda’ for his involvement in the mining, coal and chit fund scams. Naveen Patnaik chuckled his way in the polls, while Singhdeo and the BJP are still licking the wounds.
By Anil Dhir, from Bhubaneswar