Badrika Nath Mahapatra

The occasion couldn’t have been more apt. On the day of Kartik Purnima, Mr. V. Karthikeyan Pandian, (fondly called Kartik by those close to him), Chairman of 5T (Transformational Initiatives) and Nabin Odisha, a flagship rural welfare scheme of the Government of Odisha, took the much-awaited plunge into politics by joining Biju Janata Dal, the ruling party of Odisha for the last 24 years or so. Odia Hindus consider Kartik to be the holiest month and even the most voracious non-vegetarian Odias shun non-vegetarian fare throughout this month. Kartik Purnima or the full moon day of Kartik is considered even more auspicious and is marked by people setting afloat miniature paper boats in water bodies to mark Odia seafarer-traders’ venture into the Bay of Bengal on their way to the islands constituting modern-day Indonesia. So, it can be termed a full moon-rise of Mr. Pandian in BJD against the clichéd metaphor of sun-rise.

Most saw it coming. In fact, Bhubaneswar MP Aparajita Sarangi (a bureaucrat-turned-politician herself) had thrown the gauntlet at Mr. Pandian a few months back. In the midst of whirlwind tours of Mr. Pandian through the length and breadth of Odisha during which he addressed public gatherings from daises not shared with anyone else, Ms. Sarangi had challenged the second most powerful man in Odisha (the most powerful, according to some) to leave his job and enter politics if he savours so much the feeling of being welcomed by hundreds of members of women self-help groups amidst blowing of conch shells and ululation. The challenge was accepted, a bit sooner than later. Whether the national spokesperson of BJP was trying to trap Mr. Pandian by bringing him into politics where the gloves would be off in attacking him or giving him a hint to follow her path, only time will tell.  
Time has started telling though, slowly, bit by bit. Mr. Pandian, being in BJD, will, in all probability, help the party named after one of the most loved and admired Odia politicians. Front pages of vernacular newspapers and local editions of national newspapers are nowadays awash with advertisements of the Odisha Government publicizing many newly-launched schemes like LAccMI, Ama Bank etc. and inauguration and foundation stone-laying ceremonies of many developmental projects across Odisha. By all accounts, Mr. Pandian is the driving force behind such a blitzkrieg of publicity aimed at wooing those fence sitters who are bored with the long but, according to them, the not-so-impressive innings played by the BJD for more than the last two decades. As for the loyalty of those sections of the populace who have been cultivated with freebies and sops over the last so many years, BJD doesn’t seem to have any fears.  

So, does this mean that, for the opposition, the match of the 2024 assembly elections is already over before it even begins? The answer to this billion-rupee question is complicated. BJP, the principal opposition party in Odisha, can give the BJD a run for its money, if it projects a credible chief ministerial candidate who can pose a strong challenge to the fading but still strong enough image of incumbent CM Naveen Patnaik. But that prospect seems a bit unlikely at this point in time, given the BJP’s overdependence on PM Modi’s charisma and apprehensions of bickering among aspirants and their followers in their Odisha unit. If the BJP doesn’t project a popular CM face, then it can hope to reduce BJD’s numerical superiority in the state assembly but not snatch power from the latter. 

Another factor which will impact the seriousness of BJP’s efforts to dislodge BJD from power would be the question of how far BJP’s central leadership would go to sever the amiable cords with BJD’s top brass and invite the risk of losing the regional party’s support in passing future legislations in Rajya Sabha. As such, non-BJP and non-BJD parties have never shied away from pointing out the bonhomie between the top leaderships of both parties. In fact, in a recent interview published in a local vernacular daily, PCC President Sarat Pattanayak called the upcoming electoral battle between BJP and BJD being a ‘friendly fight’.

Thus, the Pandian era has formally begun in BJD and after the coming assembly elections, the ‘de facto’ power centre will, in all probability, become the ‘de jure’ power centre in Odisha’s ruling party. So long as Mr. Pandian operates under the symbolic tutelage of CM Patnaik, he will be an asset for his party and will be able to skirt open attacks on him. Only if he succeeds Naveen, he runs the risk of being vulnerable to below-the-belt attacks, chiefly stemming from his Tamil origin. But even that prospect is uncertain as Odisha is no Tamil Nadu where even dyed-in-the-wool Dravidian leaders like M G Ramachandran and J Jayalalitha had to face sneering remarks about their Malayali and Kannadiga origins. The lack of credible civil society organizations espousing the causes of ‘sons of the soil’ and familiarity of Odias with Mr. Pandian may blunt the edge of allegations based on his non-Odia origin making him as much acceptable as other politicians hailing from the state are.   

So, it will be interesting to watch the tussle between ‘sons of the soil’ and ‘son-in-law of the state (Mr. Pandian is married to Ms. Sujata Karthikeyan, his Odia IAS batchmate)’, if that ever happens, that is.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)