The fight has now begun in right earnest. Ahead of the BJP national executive meet in Bhubaneswar on April 15 & 16, the battle of attrition between the saffron party and the ruling BJD has sent the political temperature soaring in the state. With both sides determined not to give an inch, things can be trusted to get hotter not just this summer but in the months and years ahead till the 2019 elections.
While ‘Central neglect’ has always been a pet theme with the BJD, there is an element of viciousness in its tirade against the Narendra Modi government and the BJP now that was missing earlier. The ruling party has signalled its intention to take the battle to the opposition camp by announcing a three-day statewide agitation from Monday to protest the reduction in the kerosene quota for the state. The timing of the agitation is significant since the cut in quota that Civil Supplies minister has talked about took place last year. The decision to up the ante on the issue now has clearly been taken with a eye on the BJP national executive meet. Earlier, the BJD government had withdrawn the concessions granted to the IOCL refinery at Paradip in what was seen as a move directed against Union Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, widely seen as the Chief Ministerial face of the BJP. The communal violence in Bhadrak has now presented the ruling party to hit the BJP where it hurts the most. It has accused the BJP of stoking communal fires in the sensitive town to polarize the electorate in its desperate bid to come to power in Odisha.
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On its part, the BJP has returned the compliment by accusing the BJD of allowing things to fester with the express intention of triggering violence so that it could blame it (the BJP). To buttress its claim, it has pointed to the failure of the district administration to arrest the culprits responsible for the offensive posts on social media that led to the trouble in time and to allow a bike rally at a time when the town was under Sec 144 and the Peace Committee meeting was on: acts of omission and commission that it says helped worsen things.
While Bhadrak was the latest flashpoint in the ongoing battle of wits between the two former allies, signs of the hardening of attitude on both sides have been visible for some time now. In January this year, vigilance sleuths, in a move that reeked of politics, raided the LPG agency owned by Soumendra Pradhan, the Petroleum minister’s brother for alleged irregularities. It was widely suspected to be in retaliation for the CBI notice served on a host of BJD leaders and their associates in a sudden tightening of screws by the agency. Skirmishes between BJD and BJP workers have been going on at various places in the state for a year now with Bargarh, Manamunda and Paradip being the most widely reported among them.
For a good year or two after the 2014 elections brought the two parties to power – the BJP at the Centre, on its own for the first time, and BJD in the state, for the fourth successive time and the second successive time on its own – the two parties looked like warming up to each other once again after their bitter fall-out in 2009. In one of his first acts after winning an unprecedented fourth term, BJD supremo landed up at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s doors with all 27 party MPs – 20 Lok Sabha and seven Rrajya Sabha - in tow. Talks of ‘issue-based’ support notwithstanding, the two parties were largely seen on the same side of the fence – both inside and outside the Parliament.
There were whispers of a ‘deal’ having been struck by the two sides as per which the BJD would help the BJP in passing some of its key legislations in Parliament in return for the BJP taking the CBI, which had started breathing down the BJD neck, off its back in the ongoing investigation into the mega chit fund scam in the state . The ‘deal’ did not appear all that far-fetched when the Naveen Patnaik government went to incredible lengths to ensure that former DGP Prakash Mishra, who had fallen out of favour for his refusal to do its bidding in the 2014 elections, did not become the CBI chief after the exit of the disgraced Ranjit Sinha and the energetic MK Sinha, the CBI SP in Bhubaneswar who had begun giving sleepless nights to several BJD leaders, including ministers, was quietly shunted out. Sure enough, the probe started meandering along.
Things appear to have come a full circle now with the same Sinha brought back into the thick of things as the DIG of the Special Task Force (STF) that is probing the multi thousand crore chit fund scam in the state. After two years of beating about the bush, the central agency has given a clear indication in the last few weeks that it means business. If the CBI, as expected, does tighten the noose around the BJD, the ruling party’s already bitter relationship with the BJP is bound to turn into a no-holds-barred tug of war in the run up to the 2019 elections.
It is hard to put a finger on why and when relations between the two former allies began to sour. Some say the relationship soured when BJD workers, attacked Union minister Santosh Gangwar in Bargarh in 2016. Others believe the BJP was not keen to open up too many fronts so soon after coming to power – especially since it did not have a majority in the Upper House - and was just waiting for a time when it was strong enough position in the state to take on the might of the ruling party. The party’s impressive show in the panchayat elections in Odisha in February, followed by its landslide victory in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, provided the BJP just the confidence it needed to go for the jugular. This columnist, for one, is inclined to go with the second reasoning.