Between House and home, Odisha’s Patnaik bested BJP in political point-scoring

The BJP’s much improved performance in Odisha in the 2019 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections has prompted the party to make repeated efforts to pin down the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government on different issues. These exercises are aimed at scoring the maximum political points before the final showdown between the former allies in the next Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, three years from now.

The saffron party has so far not had much success in its attempts, primarily because of some excellent political moves and manoeuvring by Chief Minister Patnaik, who also heads the BJD. The moves have not only stumped the leaders of the BJP, now the principal opposition party in the state, but sometimes have even surprised the strongest of Patnaik’s critics.

A case in point is the recent, unprecedented high-voltage political drama staged on the streets of Bhubaneswar during the budget session of the state Assembly. After raising an issue in the House relating to alleged irregularities in the purchase of food grains from farmers by the state government, the BJP legislators decided to take up the issue with Patnaik and discuss the matter with him.

When they found that Patnaik was not in attendance yet and was still at his residence, the MLAs decided to walk to Naveen Niwas, the chief minister’s home. The saffron legislators’ intention was clear. They thought they would definitely be stopped by the police on the way, particularly when they reach the CM’s residence. Then a scuffle would follow and the political disturbances on the streets of the capital would immediately make headlines in the newspapers and local TV news channels, giving them political mileage.

But that was not to be. Patnaik, who also heads the Home department, ordered the police not to go anywhere near the BJP legislators. Instead, he directed his own party MLAs, including ministers, to escort the opposition legislators to his house and personally invite them inside. Contrary to what the BJP had planned, what Odisha got to see was a scene of BJD and BJP MLAs walking together to the CM’s residence.

Once near Naveen Niwas, some senior BJD legislators and ministers requested the BJP MLAs to go in and speak to Patnaik. “The Chief Minister is waiting for you. Please come inside and discuss whatever problems you have,” Education Minister Samir Ranjan Dash was seen telling the BJP legislators.

Realising that the situation was slipping out of their hands and they would not be able to make any political capital out of it, the BJP lawmakers suddenly decided to sit on the road in protest. Their complaint: Why were there gates in their way?! The BJD leaders explained to them that the gates had been put up as permanent structures for the CM’s security. The BJP MLAs were not satisfied. Some of them insisted that the CM should come to them immediately. They perhaps expected that Patnaik would refuse to do so and they could carry on their high-voltage political show.

But the astute Patnaik seemed determined to puncture their plan. He came out of his residence, walked up to the squatting BJP MLAs and invited them in. The stunned MLAs had no option but to follow him in.

The drama did not end there. As soon as the BJP legislators entered Naveen Niwas, they found members of the BJD Mahila Morcha, the ladies wing of the regional outfit, including a couple of woman legislators, waiting to give them a traditional welcome, anointing them with tilak on their foreheads. The next day, the BJP’s Pradipta Naik, the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, conceded to reporters that they had made a mistake in marching to Naveen Niwas.

Political analysts believe that by handling the entire episode cleverly, Patnaik killed two birds in one shot. First, he foiled the BJP’s attempt to score a political point by their antics. Second, he exposed the infighting in the BJP over how to handle him (Patnaik). Some disgruntled BJP legislators did not accompany their colleagues, including Naik, into the CM’s house.

It is a well-known fact that the state unit of the BJP is divided into two camps — one that is extremely hard and critical of the BJD and Naveen Patnaik, and another that is a little soft towards the CM and his party. And that suits Patnaik perfectly. Independent observers are of the view that the fissures in the saffron party over Patnaik could be one of the reasons why the BJP has not been able to come out with an effective strategy against his government.

The BJP and BJD were allies in Odisha for more than a decade and shared power in the state for two consecutive terms between 2000 and 2009.

On the eve of the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, the BJD decided to go it alone. It has since maintained its position successfully.

Fighting alone, the BJP had performed poorly in 2009 as well as the 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the state but managed to put up a much better performance in the 2019 polls, pushing Congress to the third spot and rising to become the principal opposition party in the state.